The premise of A Darker Shade of Magic is pretty perfect. There are parallel worlds with corresponding versions of London in which magic exists or existed to varying degrees, and they are aware of each other’s existence (or at least the rulers are). In this universe, a few people with special powers exist who can travel between dimensions. These people with particular magical ability are called ‘antari’, and Kell is one of the last known. Kell has named the various versions of London “Red” (his home realm), “Grey” (no magic), and “White” (magical but sinister). “Black” London used to exist but due to events in the past, was sealed off. From the other dimensions and is now little more than myth. It’s Kell’s job to pass communications between the rulers of the 3 Londons but of course he has a side interest: smuggling objects from one London to the other for people who can pay.
Because of his special powers, we eventually learn that Kell was taken from his parents at the age of 5 and raised in the palace, and for some reason he can’t remember his natural parents. He does regard the quite spoiled prince of Red London Rhy as his brother, and the feeling is mutual. Besides Kell and Rhy, one more character features in the story, and that’s Delilah Bard. A street rat of Grey London, she steals something from Kell that turns out to be a relic of Black London, and the two of them have to go save the worlds from the relic and the evil rulers of White London. Involved in this scheme is also the antari of White London, Holland. Lila has a major chip on her shoulder that makes her unsympathetic to me. Yes, her life has been troubled, but she never manages to show much gratitude to the people who help her out, repeatedly. There’s some internal dialogue suggesting that she recognizes that she should, but the character’s inability to do anything much about it bothers me.
Even with a really cool premise and the structure of an amazing adventure story, it took me surprisingly long to get into the book. I think it’s because of some uneven characterization and pacing, but even now I’m not too sure. The story starts well with some intriguing introductory characters and actions, and keeps up the interest. My irritation with Lila Bard, paired with the flat characters of Astrid and Athos Dane, evil sibling rulers of White London, are likely the problem there. Astrid and Athos are just power hungry despots, products of their world to some extent (there isn’t a lot of background on the history of this universe here, so I’m guessing a little here) but just not enough to carry the amount of story they’re given. This is also probably why the final showdown wasn’t as exciting as it could have been. Astrid and Athos just can’t stand up as characters to the many of the others; even Holland has more to him, and he’s one of the least detailed.
Problems notwithstanding, I enjoyed this book overall and I picked up the sequel that just came out. I’d recommend this installment, and hopefully the sequel keeps up the good parts.