A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic is plastered with encomiums that make it sound like the second coming of Dune—it's described as “compulsively readable”, “ingeniously clever”, and “an exhilarating adventure”. This breathless enthusiasm struck me as distinctly overblown, but Schwab's story is undeniably thoughtful, imaginative, and action-packed.

A Darker Shade of Magic features four alternate universes: Grey London, a world without magic; Red London, where magic flows freely; White London, where the inhabitants fight viciously over what little magic remains; and dead, abandoned Black London. Kell, an inhabitant of Red London, is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between worlds. Carrying objects from one world to another is strictly forbidden, but occasionally Kell can't resist. This gets him into trouble, both when he is tricked into transporting a destructive Black London relic across the worlds, and when he meets Lila Bard, a Grey London pickpocket who insists on accompanying him.

Kell is a bit of a nonentity, but Lila is a marvelous character—crafty and resourceful and just vulnerable enough to be sympathetic. I loved the idea of overlapping Londons, and Schwab has a gift for slipping in tantalizing clues about future plot developments. Really, I don't have any concrete complaints about this book, other than a vague feeling that it falls short of, say, Elizabeth Bear's darker and more ambitious action/adventure/fantasy Karen Memory. That doesn't mean I didn't richly enjoy A Darker Shade of Magic (I did!), but it does leave me a side-eyeing the promotional quote that compares it to “a priceless object, brought from another, better world of fantasy books.” It's good, but it's not that good.

Note: Speaking of A Darker Shade of Magic and Karen Memory, the eye-catching, elegant, and grown-up cover art featured on both novels has left me sincerely mourning the fact that no one has repackaged my beloved Flora Segunda for an adult audience. Flora Segunda is thematically similar and just as well-written—or better!—as either of those books, and I am so, so sorry no one has given it the kind of boost that only a truly spectacular cover can provide.
Posted by: Julianka


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