Sometimes a book hunts you until you read it. Whatever social media you use, whomever you talk to, every time you turn around—boop! There it is! V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic was one of those books for me. Having finally succumbed, I can add this book to my “liked” pile for its world-building and interesting characters…and move on to other titles that may strike a deeper emotional chord.
The story follows Kell, one of only two Antari—rare and powerful magicians—left in the parallel universes of Black, Red, White, and Grey London. Although he lives in Red London, the London that thrives on living magic and where he enjoys a life of privilege, Kell is not content. He feels like an outsider with no real purpose, and turns to smuggling trinkets between the Londons to inject some excitement into his life. When a relic of Black London, the London destroyed years ago when its magic turned ugly, shows up on the scene, Kell must partner with anti-hero Lila Bard, a self-serving thief, to ensure it stays safely out of evil hands.
As the first book in a trilogy, Schwab takes time in A Darker Shade of Magic to fully develop the different Londons and describe the magic system that relies on a manipulation of elements—including blood and bone. Through the characters’ explorations, we feel the drab hopelessness of Grey London, the violence of White London, and the sumptuous ease of Red London. As a result, the story progresses somewhat slowly in the beginning, with the two main characters, Kell and Lila, not even meeting until well into the book.
Once the relic from Black London is introduced, the pace accelerates. The stakes are high: characters die at the hands of vicious, psychotic villains. This is where some of the character motivations seemed weak. Lila, who hates being indebted to others, suddenly joins up with Kell because he helps her out of a tricky situation, and because she longs for adventure. In contrast, the emotional impact you expect when someone close to her is attacked is not fulfilled.
This passing attention to the character’s inner emotional lives also presents itself in the budding romance between Kell and Lila. They kiss—briefly—but there is no heat, not even a spark to set the stage for a growing attraction. Frodo and Sam have more chemistry. You could attribute this tame approach to the genre, but although I read it thinking it was Young Adult (YA), I later discovered the book was written for an adult audience. And really, having just re-read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, where the love triangle (quadrangle?) is humming, the relationship development in A Darker Shade is disappointing.
That is not to say that I didn’t like Kell, Lila, and the other characters, because I did. They were complicated and conflicted. Following the modern ideal, Lila is a strong female character that bunks more traditional tropes. The fight scenes were also well-done, at least until the final battle, when the victor triumphs using a rather unimaginative trick.
Perhaps the story continues to build and the emotions deepen in A Gathering of Shadows (Book 2) and A Conjuring of Light (Book 3)? The latter was released in February 2017 to rave reviews, with Kirkus including the book on its Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2017 list. Schwab’s world-building and characters are intriguing enough to keep me reading, but I might let the hunt linger while I read other hot titles.
Overall: 3 Stars (Liked It)
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