A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab
I almost DNFd this book but I am actually glad that I stuck with it! After struggling for the first several chapters I finally settled into the narrative and wound up enjoying this imaginative fantasy world that Schwab created.
About the Book
Publisher: Tor Books | Release Date: February 24, 2015 | Pages: 401
Genre: Adult, Fantasy | Format: eBook | Source: Publisher via Newsletter
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.
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Welcome to the Darker Shade of Magic realm, where parallel Londons exist in very different countries and outside the understanding of all inhabitants save royalty and a select few. Long ago travel between the Londons was possible, but the doors have long since been closed to all but the two remaining Antari – rare magicians with the ability to travel between the Londons. A Darker Shade of Magic is the first installment to the Shades of Magic trilogy and I am excited for more!
“Three very different Londons, in three very different countries, and Kell was one of the only living souls to have seen them all.”
What a roller coaster of emotions this book was for me! I was instantly hooked with the opening lines, was bored with the pacing and repetition, and then was completely sucked in again. It was really weird and while I have my conversation with my buddy reading partner Sam about how we struggled with the pacing in the beginning, I still do not really know how to adequately describe the disjointed feelings that I had during the exposition. I love flowery writing and expansive worldbuilding, but there was something that didn’t quite jive with me for the first 5 or 6 chapters of the book. I wrote to Sam, “Imagine if this wasn’t pages of descriptions” and she agreed.
“There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London. See? I’m a fast learner.”
But then something changed. It wasn’t Schwab’s writing style because it was consistently descriptive, and it wasn’t that the plot took off because it was captivating from the first page. Suddenly I was devouring each page gleefully and loving every bit of the story as it unfolded; my best guess is that I struggled with the way exposition was laid out in the book and once I got through the most ‘info-dumpy’ parts I really settled into the narrative. I am really glad that I stuck with it because I was very close to a DNF.
“Such is the quandry when it comes to magic, that it is not an issue of strength but of balance.”
Anyways. I love the characters so much and Lila is welcome to join my fictional girl gang anytime. Kell is such a lovely character, and I really appreciated the limited glimpse of Rhy (I hope he gets more exploration in the rest of the trilogy!) There is diversity in this book and loved the bi representation with Rhy. The freedom of sexuality and fluidity here across all three Londons was really refreshing to see.
🏴☠️ Delilah (Lila) Bard is a pirate without a ship, desperate for adventure from her drab and meager existence in Grey London. Scrappy, hilarious, and strong.
🎩 Kell is one of two remaining Antari, lives in Arnes – what he refers to as Red London. He travels between the Londons with messages from the rulers, acting as a magical courier of sorts, but also has a treasonous hobby of collecting trinkets from the other worlds.
“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
The majority of the narrative is told from Lila and Kell’s perspectives, both of which I enjoyed equally (which is rare for me). However, I did struggle a bit with a couple of narrative shifts that went to random side characters as they weren’t notated and I found it to disrupt the narrative flow.
I have to say that Holland is one of the best, most well-rounded villains that I have read in a long time. I like my antagonists to be sympathetic, complex, and dark and twisty with the lines between good and evil definitely blurred. I definitely want more of his story and what went down. The Danes are creepy and just outright evil with their bloodlust and their juxtaposition with the other characters makes for an interesting shade of morally gray.
“Antari could speak to blood. To life. To magic itself. The first and final element, the one that lived in all and was none.”
Really cool elemental magic system – earth, air, fire, water, bones (people). It seems that people have an aptitude for one, and the Antari can command over all of them plus blood (which enables their London travel). A lot of time in fantasy I am left wanting more explanation of the magic system – oftentimes I feel like it is glossed over because ‘magic needs to explanation’ – but Schwab took care to think about and explain how magic works… and that ties into the very being of every character in the book. It made for more opportunity for conflict and I look forward to seeing that exploited.
“If red was the color of magic in balance – of harmony between power and humanity – then black was the color of magic without balance, without order, without restraint.”
The fact that Red London is thriving with magic while Black London crumbled under its weight and White London seems to be infected with Black while Grey has none makes for an underlying theme of power and corruption. I cannot wait to learn more about Black London and what happened there.
“Grey London had forgotten magic long ago.”
I love this world and what I feel like is an expansion of our world (are we living in the world of Grey London?)! The world that Schwab created is vast, detailed, and comes alive on the page – just as her characters do. Even though this book is first-in-trilogy, it comes to a satisfying ending and could be read as a standalone – no cliffhangers here! This was my first book of Schwab’s and I can see why her work is so coveted. Looking forward to continuing on with this series.
Content warnings: for self-mutilation as the Antari can travel between Londons via their blood