I’m constantly looking for new fantastical books to read and analyze for this column, and when one of my favorite authors recommended this book on her Tumblr, I took a look and thought, hey, this sounds like it could be really interesting. So off I went to the library to check it out. A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, holds a complicated four worlds within its pages, stacked atop each other like a deck of cards. At the bottom of the worlds is a source of magic, and the closer the world is to the magic, the stronger the inhabitants of that world are. Yet despite this novel premise, the book falls short in several ways. Minor spoilers after the jump.
More specifically, there are four Londons, each of which has its own relationship to magic. Our main protagonist, Kell, is an Antari, a magician with the power to travel between said Londons. Kell describes them in terms of the magic in each world. There’s Black London, which was closest to the magic “source”, and everyone in Black London could use as much magic as they could imagine using. Kell tells our second protagonist, Lila, about it by saying, “It was believed that [in Black London] the power not only ran strong in the blood, but pulsed like a second soul through everything.” As the legend goes, the people of Black London got too greedy with their magic, and it consumed them.
Then there’s White London, which lies between Black London and the other Londons. When Black London fell to its magic, the other Londons got together and decided to seal off Black London so that its magical plague couldn’t affect the rest of them. However, Red London soon abandoned White London to its troubles, and White London is left to fight off the encroaching Black London in a desperate struggle for resources. Magic is one of these resources, and talented magicians fight to enslave what magic (and magicians) they can.
Red London, Kell’s London, is probably the “healthiest” of the Londons. Like White London, only born magicians can use magic, and some are more talented than others. The world of Red London is vibrant and beautiful, and humanity and magic alike thrive. Finally, Grey London, Lila’s London, is “our” London: magic-less, dreary, and rainy. As Grey London is the London furthest from the source of the magic, its magical prowess has failed even as its people grew strong.
Kell has the extremely bad habit of smuggling artifacts from one London to the next, in direct defiance of rules written to prevent this sort of thing. This backfires on him when someone in White London tricks him into smuggling a Black London artifact into Red London, and pretty soon, Kell’s actions set off a chain of events that could destroy all the worlds.
Interestingly enough, magic itself is one of the main villains of this book. Although the magicians of Red and White London profess to use magic only as a tool, in truth, it has a mind of its own. As Kell says, it’s alive, and it ate Black London like so much fuel. Magic—and the desire for magic—informs all the characters’ actions in this book. Magic-less, powerless Lila longs to leave Grey London and find something better, something more exciting. Astrid and Athos Dane, the twin rulers of White London, want the magic of Black London so that they can conquer Red London. The rulers of Red London position themselves as above such sordid squabbles, but they too have collected Kell like a possession for the throne’s use, solely because he has power that they want.
Yet the book’s use of magic as a malevolent force sometimes falls short. Because magic doesn’t think, per se, it can’t make a compelling antagonist. The Danes’ actions are more decipherable, but they’re also motivated by their use of Black London’s magic, which corrupts them and drives them to use more of it so that it can spread across the worlds. The constructs that Kell and Lila create out of Black London magic have minds of their own and try to kill them, but again, we don’t know why they want to do so, except for the fact that magic is evil.
A Darker Shade of Magic certainly contains some of the best worldbuilding I’ve come across this year, but it’s constricted by its odd magical conflict and a pair of protagonists who start out well but have clunky, wooden character development all the way through the book. Many plot points are brought up only to later disappear, and Schwab buries some magical smoking guns, I assume for the upcoming sequel. Will I read it? I don’t know. I feel like I can already guess the secret we’re going to find out about Lila, and Kell’s relationship with his brother Rhy wasn’t convincing enough for me to buy the sacrifices that Kell made for him, so I’m not sure if I’m interested in finding out more about Kell’s mysterious past and possible birth family. The one thing I do want to see more of is what happens to the Black London constructs loose in Grey London, but I don’t know how much depth Schwab can give them, judging from this book. If you’ve read A Darker Shade of Magic, let me know what you thought of it in the comments! Maybe I’ll change my mind.