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Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

By (February 16, 2015) No Comment

A Darker Shade of MagicA Darker Shade final for Irene

by V. E. Schwab

Tor, 2015

Hugely popular Young Adult author Victoria Schwab has had a charmed literary life; she has an enormously dedicated fan following, her debut attempt at crossing over to adult fiction (written as V. E. Schwab), 2013’s Vicious, managed that near-impossible transition to hosannas of popular and critical praise, and her latest novel as V. E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, not only arrives born on a tide of keen anticipation but sports a gorgeous, stylish cover by Will Staehle. The book could scarcely flop if it had fifty blank pages right in the middle.

But the crucial thing to know in this case is that not all charmed lives are unjustly charmed; A Darker Shade of Magic is superb. It’s smart, gripping, and elegantly conceived – if it’s not the best fantasy novel written in all of 2015, I’ll be amazed.

It’s set in a chain of parallel worlds that we see through the alternate versions of one city: there’s White London, a magic-suffused place ruled by a pair of wonderfully hissable villains, Grey London, a bland perpetual-austerity place lacking all magic, and even a Black London, which Schwab evokes chillingly more by allusion than description. The book tells the story of a 21-year-old man (predictably dreamy) named Kell, who’s one of the few remaining Travelers, individuals who still possess the sorcerous ability to travel at will between the different worlds. Kell himself comes from Red London, a boisterously agreeable place ruled by an enlightened monarchy whose 20-year-old prince (predictably dreamy) is his best friend. Kell, as Traveler, is tasked with bearing messages between the various capitals, and Schwab evokes the nuances of her magic system with fine delicacy when Grey London’s blind, doddering King George, granting Kell an audience, notices a certain side-effect of Traveling:

“Roses,” he said wistfully.

He meant the magic. Kell never noticed the faint aromatic scent of Red London clinging to his clothes, but whenever he traveled someone invariably told him he smelled like freshly cut flowers. Some said tulips. Other stargazers. Chrysanthemums. Peonies. To the king of England, it was always roses. Kell was glad to know it was a pleasant scent, even if he couldn’t smell it. He could smell Grey London (smoke) and White London (blood), but to him, Red London simply smelled like home.

Kell is young, and underneath his slightly raffish and world-weary ways, he’s a dedicated servant to his adoptive royal family – so dedicated, in fact, that there are ordinary non-magical citizens of Red London who’ve seen more of that world than he has:

Three very different Londons, in three very different countries, and Kell was one of the only living souls to have seen them all. The great irony, he supposed, was that he had never seen the worlds beyond the cities. Bound to the service of his king and crown, and constantly kept within its reach, he had never been more than a day’s journey from one London or another.

But Kell’s dedication isn’t perfect; his daredevil penchant for smuggling collectors’ items between worlds has lately developed into a full-blown racket, and this inevitably brings the trouble that sets in motion the plot of A Darker Shade of Magic. He smuggles a Maguffin, he loses it to charismatic thief and adventurer Delilah Bard, and the two of them stumble across the hints of a darker plot that could threaten every parallel London. Schwab moves the whole business along with a brisk confidence that allays all the suspicions it arouses (plot-moving-along being the one and only thing YA fiction ever actually does), and her writing is unfailingly snappy. She’s pleasingly consistent in importing limits and darker elements into Kell’s sorcerous gift (in this the book reminded me of Kevin O’Donnell’s “Journeys of McGill Feighan” series and its Flingers), which he accesses through the most direct means possible: his own blood:

Some thought magic came from the mind, others the soul, or the heart, or the will.

But Kell knew it came from the blood.

Blood was magic made manifest. There it thrived. And there it poisoned. Kell had seen what happened when power warred with the body, watched it darken in the veins and of corrupted men, turning their blood from crimson to black. 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.

A Darker Shade of Magic is clearly intended to be continued, and it’s so much brainy fun that the idea of future volumes is a very encouraging one. This particular charmed literary life is good news for fantasy readers.