Fantasy worlds are two-a-penny these days. It takes a skilled writer and a good story to stand out from the crowd. Fortunately, V.E. Schwab ticks all the boxes with A Darker Shade of Magic. All systems are go from the moment you open the page – there are no wallowing descriptions to muddle through; Schwab introduces and fleshes out the four Londons with effective and tight lyricism as her hero, Kell, jumps from intriguing danger to intriguing danger.
The thing I noticed most about ADSOM was Schwab’s writing style, actually. It was succinct and to the point, without ever making you think something was lacking from the narrative. Schwab uses her words very well indeed.
The protagonist, Kell is a Traveller, which means he possesses the power to go from each of the four Londons: Grey, Red, White and Black. These Londons are separated by barriers; some are magical, some are not. Kell’s is from Red London, a place where their answer to the Thames is basically an artery of magic, and bathes the city in a ruby glow (hence the name). Grey London is what we would call ‘our’ London: it has little-to-no magic, and it is the home of Lila, a cross-dressing thief who dreams of being a pirate. They meet one night after Kell smuggles something he shouldn’t from one London to another.
Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose and Kell and Lila (reluctantly) work together to make sure people don’t die horrible deaths. Well. Kell makes sure people don’t die horrible deaths. Lila is mainly in it for adventure and the opportunity to commandeer a ship.
Kell and Lila are, as you may have guessed, the stars of this show. Their characters are well-written and fun to read about; their motivations clearly individual. There’s a deeper story brewing with Lila, I’m sure, as I spent half the book rather furiously wondering about her ‘slightly darker eye’. This was explained at the end but I’m still not convinced there isn’t a second revelation around the corner. My hope is that… is that you will read the book and come to the same (potentially erroneous, but who knows?) conclusion I did.
As main villains go, I found the twins to be a little on the standard side compared to the other characters in the book, but this was by no means to the story’s detriment. The simplicity of their motivations, doing what they do for power and control, was a solid obstacle for our heroes to overcome. Plus, they did have a quirky, vicious and unpleasant fondness for torture and hemoglobic cuisine, which can only be a good thing in a villain.
Seriously good fun, A Darker Shade of Magic is a well-written fantasy romp that everyone should enjoy. I recommend it, and I await the release of the sequel!