A Darker Shade of Magic is the first book in the Shades of London series by VE Schwab. The protagonist, Kell, is able to use his magic to travel between parallel Londons – Red, White, and Grey. Each of these Londons has a different approach to magic – in Red London, Kell’s home, it is everywhere and it is revered; in White London, it is a feared and dangerous weapon, wielded by despots; and in Grey London, magic is scarcely present – plenty of people no longer believe in it. There is a fourth London, though: Black London, where three hundred years ago, the magic took control.
I’ve never read anything by VE Schwab (or Victoria Schwab, the name she uses for her young adult novels), and I might honestly never have picked up A Darker Shade of Magic if not for two things. Firstly, it was the group read for the fellowship challenge in the Fantasy Adventureathon, and secondly one of my friends bought it for me as a birthday present. It took me a while to decide whether I liked it, even after I had finished reading it, but on balance I think I did.
The story centres around Kell, and another character, Lila, a pickpocket from Grey London. I think my hesitation when trying to work out if I enjoyed it was based primarily on these characters. They feel a little bit too much like stock fantasy characters, a little too flat, especially towards the start. Kell is a brooding fantasy hero who has to Resist the Dark Side, and Lila is a scrappy, feisty female sidekick – really, she reads exactly like one of Stephen Moffatt’s women. Over the course of the book, I did not find that Kell became any more compelling, but Lila did, and her character was enough to keep me reading. The characterisation certainly isn’t a strength of the book, but I did warm up to Lila over the course of the story as she became more interesting.
The characterisation might not be a strong point, but the worldbuilding and magic system is. Initially, it was a little gory for me. The magic system in this world is based on control of the elements: water, fire, earth, air – and blood. There is a lot of blood spilled in this book. I mean, I am a nurse who used to work on a surgical ward, and this turned even my stomach in a couple of places. I think part of the problem is that, in most fantasy systems, blood-based magic is what the baddies do, so it feels counter-intuitive for the protagonist to be using it here. As the book picked up, though, I started to enjoy how Schwab was exploring this issue. Lots of fantasy magic systems drain the user in some way or another, but it is not normally quite as literal as this. Kell’s magic essentially relies on him harming himself, which is something he has to consider whenever he wants to help someone or use his power. If I pick up the second book – and I think I probably will – it will be largely because of the way the magic system was used in this one.
Although I found the plot to be a little staid in some places – very much a standard fantasy plot – the different Londons added a lot of interest. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe there was some decent characterisation in this book – it was just about the four Londons rather than the two main characters. The settings all feel very different – White London is convincingly creepy, for example – and so you never quite know how that will affect the characters’ behaviour and abilities in different environments. It was used to good effect in this novel, and I would be pleased if there was more of it in the sequels.
Overall, I think I would recommend this (though if you are not already a fantasy reader, maybe don’t start here), and I would also recommend sticking with it. Although I never felt particularly invested in the individual characters, I did want to see how Schwab solved the various puzzles and problems she set up for herself and her characters. I also tore through it in about a day and a half, which is unusual for me these days. (Also, I feel like everyone else in the world has read this already – if you did, what did you think?)