A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
This book, man. After falling head-over-heels in love with V.E. Schwab’s modern superhero YA novel Vicious—it blew my mind and easily in my Top 5 Books of All Time—I couldn’t wait to get my grubby little hands on her new fantasy book A Darker Shade of Magic. And maybe that was the problem. My highly anticipated self was a little let down with how not mind-blowingly fantastic it was–not to be confused with how really good it was. Maybe I put too much stock in Vicious to give this one a fair chance. And then I recalled how I attempted her other books (written as Victoria Schwab) of the Archived series, and couldn’t get into them either.
Maybe I just don’t like her fantasy stuff. Maybe Schwab is only a home-run hitter when it comes to ambiguously grey characters who I love to hate and don’t know who to root for—“spoiler”, there are none of those (really) in this book.
In A Darker Shade of Magic we are introduced to Kell, an Antari (magic user species) who is able to travel between several different Londons. Some with magic, some without, some who have been decimated by it. When Kell unknowingly brings back a piece of Black London (the super corrupted London that no one has traveled to in forever) to his own world, Kell is on the mission to return it so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands—i.e. the deliciously sinister twins who rule White London. However, in his attempts to lay low, Kell is stuck with a magic-less Grey Londoner, Lila, who is hell bent on going on an epic adventure of her own. And what is more epic and adventure like than traveling between worlds?
Good, great. With me so far?
A Darker Shade of Magic is traditionally enticing. It has magic and fantasy and a bit of mystery. But all the compelling material was left unchecked. Kell has a secret past, only brought to light by the fact that he is “owned” by the royal family, not “adopted”—he makes that distinction several times to Lila. How? Why? Kell also had parts of his mind erased at five years old. What does that mean? Well, we won’t know in this book (but probably an excellent plot point for the other two planned books. SIGH). And I get it. A series has to have something to keep a person coming back—but if the only way to do that is to not go into detail about something, I feel a little jipped.
But this isn’t about the series problems (which didn’t make much sense, since everything wraps up rather nicely in the end), this is about the characters. While I didn’t dislike Kell or Lila, I felt what we got was all we were ever going to get in terms of depth. Whatever intrigue I felt for Kell was wrapped up in his interactions with other people (Rhy, his “brother” and Holland, the only other Antari who… had a much more interesting story that I wanted to see completely exploited in the book.) And Lila, the strong tough tomboy, started to really irk me when she couldn’t stop stealing things. Like, new world, full of magic, and the first thing you do is try and nick something from an vendor.
I deeply empathized with Kell’s irritation.
The story follows a linear pattern with a beginning, middle, and end. Full stop. And perhaps that comes with my lack of enchantment with the book. Every supporting character dies. I felt maybe GRRM was whispering in Schwab’s ear with encouraging advice—“Make this person interesting, then before the readers find out anything, kill them. The fans will love you more.”
And when we’re stuck with Kell and Lila, and we have a very one-track story that doesn’t branch out any further than what they’re doing at this moment, I started to get a little… bored. And the end felt like a cop out for all that desperate build up about not being able to come back from Black London once Kell—and Lila—stepped through the threshold. (spoilers: All he had to do was tell the magic to disperse from the stone? Forgive me if I think he should have had to go to Black London, because that’s totally something I am on board for.)
The writing was on point. And it’s clever in its own way, something that makes the book less of a traditional high fantasy and nothing the YA genre is dabbling in (yet.)
In the end, the tl;dr—If you loved Vicious, you’ll probably be underwhelmed by this. If you like magic and parallel universes, cool jackets and a vivid band of characters, this is probably up your alley.
This book is the first part in a series.
IF YOU LIKED THIS BOOK, YOU MIGHT LIKE: The Archived by Victoria Schwab, A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray, The Young Elites by Marie Lu