This dark fantasy is Game of Thrones meets The Night Circus and will appeal to any fans of realistic fantasy. The first book of a three part trilogy (part 3 releases February 2017), A Darker Shade of Magic is an outstanding novel that will enthrall readers and insure you are up late reading “just one more page.”
There is not one London, but four. There is the world of Henry III, a Grey London without magic. There is Red London, where magic is in balance. White London, a world where magic is starved. And Black London, a world overwhelmed by magic, lost and sealed away from the others. Kell is Antari, powerful magicians that alone can walk between the separated Londons. Delilah Bard is a thief in Grey London who dreams of being a pirate and escaping her squalor for a life of adventure. One evening she chances to meet Kell in a dark alley and picks his pocket, setting in motion a chain of events that will give Delilah more adventure than she can handle.
There is so much to like in A Darker Shade of Magic that I encourage you to stop reading this review, get the book, read it, and do so as soon as possible. In fact you can buy it here! Victoria Schwab (writing as V.E. Schwab) has created a world populated with characters that you instantly want to know more about. These characters are well defined through their actions and we are able to see what kind of people they are rather than have it told to us. The villains are truly evil while still being understandable in their motives. The heroes are not of the white knight variety and have their own weaknesses that make them far more interesting than a cast of Dudley Do Rights.
Delilah “Lila” Bard is one of the best characters to come along in some kind. She is a thief doing what she can to survive and has no hesitation in ending the life of anyone that threatens her. She looks with longing to the sea and plans for the day she can command a ship of her own sailing the ocean as a pirate king. She is a hard as stone, take no shit anti-heroine who has never cared for anyone but herself. As these stories go you know that she will end up doing the right thing. But Schwab never compromises her characters for a cheap special moment. For instance, last in the novel Lila must infiltrate a masquerade ball. A local shopkeeper offers to dress her so she can attend. If you read that line and assumed Lila is given a spectacular dress that causes everyone to see what a beauty she really is beneath the sneer and bruises you should be forgiven because I had the same fear. Lila soundly rejects the offer of a dress for an elegant pair of pants and matching jacket that allows her to conceal her many weapons and strike the exact look that she has dreamed of. It’s a clichéd setup that is made powerful through the deft writing and that Schwab never betrays her characters and their personalities for a cheap emotional beat.
Compared to Lila the Antari, Kell, is slightly duller but becomes more interesting the more time he spends with Lila. He knows far better than she does what is at stake in the plot they find themselves in. Whereas Lila is on an adventure, the treachery against Kell is deeply personal and sweeps his family up into danger with him. He is a rogue but trying to the right thing and fix the mistake that caused all the trouble to begin with.
The portrayal of magic is also exceptionally well done. There are rules, those rules cannot be broken, and magic doesn’t suddenly start doing something it cannot because the plot requires it. For the Antari, magic is literally in the blood and to cast the most powerful spells requires blood to do it. Luckily Antari heal relatively quickly so the many, many cuts they inflict on themselves for the necessary ingredient in their spells doesn’t pose too much of a problem. As one character says, “Its very difficult to kill an Antari.,”and the book proves that time and time again. It may not kill them, but the characters all take a huge level of punishment over the story.
A Darker Shade of Magic is the first part of a trilogy that doesn’t require any other books to enjoy this one. It tells a self contained story that offer no stinger for the next book. I have my suspicions on where the next installment is going but it is based entirely on the events of the book and my understanding of the characters and certain rules of magic. Time will tell if I’m correct but probably not a lot of time because I plan to jump in to the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, as soon as possible. Typically I do not like to read series installments in a row but in this case I very much want to know what happens next. When a book fills me with that kind of need it’s a special one indeed.