Author: V.E. Schwab*
I thought about trying to come up with a clever intro statement for this review, but I kept coming back to “it’s really really really good,” so that’s what y’all get. Eloquence has always been one of my defining traits. At any rate, it’s true – A Darker Shade of Magic brings together multiple magical Londons, an infinite coat, a weapon-laden thief girl and some psycho villains to create a tantalizingly complex story full of adventure and escapades.
There used to be four Londons – Grey, Red, White and Black. When Black was lost to corruptive magical forces, the others sealed off the walls between the worlds to prevent the darkness from spreading. Grey London, austere and drab, is reminiscent of our world. Red London flourishes in its power and is the most prosperous of the three remaining cities. White London has magic, but its culture is power-hungry and cruel, with aspiring individuals constantly seeking to murder the current ruler and claim the throne a la Game of Thrones.
Travel between the Londons is strictly forbidden to everyone except the Antari, blood mages who possess the rarest of all magics. There are only two Antari left – Kell, pseudo-adopted son of the Red London king and queen, and Holland, cold-hearted servant of the extremely creepy and brutal Dane twins, who jointly rule White London. The Antari serve as messengers between the three remaining Londons, forbidden from transporting anything but themselves and the rulers’ correspondence. Too bad Kell has sticky fingers.
Kell’s smuggling habits catch up to him in the worst way possible when he’s tricked into ferrying a potent artifact from Black London that should’ve been destroyed ages ago. It gives the bearer access to unimaginable power, but gradually infiltrates their life force, turning people into mere husks for possession by dark forces thought long banished. Kell wants nothing more than to see it returned to Black London and locked away forever, but the Dane twins have other ideas. They’ve sicced Holland on Kell, and not even the boundaries of the worlds can stop him. When the chase takes them to Grey London, Kell falls into an uneasy partnership with Delilah (Lila) Bard, who makes up for her lack of magic with a never-ending arsenal of guns, blades, and cutting remarks. For her part, Lila wants nothing more than the freedom to have an adventure – preferably on a ship under her own captaincy – and coercing Kell into taking her to Red London seems like a good place to start.
A Darker Shade of Magic is an excellent YA/adult fantasy crossover. Author V.E. Schwab is an expert worldbuilder, delivering compelling, understandable descriptions of her Londons and the different types of magic without falling into overly complex stuffiness. Her characters have the vivacity and wit often seen in YA fantasy, but she refrains from falling into tropes that might turn off a more mature reader. Truly, the entire cast is fabulous, whether you’re talking about the hopeless flirt Prince Rhy or the darkly disturbed Danes. And while this book is full and satisfying, there’s obviously plenty left to be explored in A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, especially since Lila makes it very clear that she’s just getting started.
“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
On a slightly sillier note, there are two fantastic Twitter accounts that pay homage to this series, and being able to appreciate them is a delight you should not deprive yourself of. “ADSOM as vines” pulls 6-second Vine loops out of their original context and attributes them to series characters with hilarious results (and a decent potential for adult language, fair warning). “ADSOM as birds” accomplishes the same, but…with birds. And it’s fabulous. While some of the content on both these feeds comes from later books, hey, that’s just incentive to keep reading!
I’d recommend ADSOM to any fantasy fan; I have yet to see someone say they didn’t love it and all the subsequent books (possibly with tears and heartbreak but hey that’s what we readers live for). Fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows should particularly enjoy it, or vice versa. If you find yourself becoming (or already are) a superfan, a hardback collector’s edition is coming out in October with a metallic cover, author signature, reading ribbon, endpaper art and all the fancy things, including new content! I get nothing from promoting this but the satisfaction of knowing I have preorder buddies.
If reading A Darker Shade of Magic has taught me anything, it’s that I should listen to my gut and go buy out Schwab’s shelf in the bookstore, including Vicious, which is about supervillains and how awesome does that sound?!? My gut is usually right about these things.
*She writes under V.E. Schwab for her adult books and Victoria Schwab for YA/middle grade.