Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic ReviewA Darker Shade of Magic

by V.E. Schwab

Pages: 400| Publication Year: 2015

Genre: Fantasy

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What It’s About

Kell is the official Red Traveler, a magical ambassador for Red London–one of four parallel Londons across four different worlds. There’s Grey London, a dull, boring place where magic hardly exists; Red London, a thriving place full of magic where Kell was raised alongside the royal heir to the throne; White London, an unstable place where a thirst for magic leads to excessive violence; and Black London, a world so consumed by dark magic that it’s cut off from the rest. Kell is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between these parallel worlds. On his travels, Kell makes a habit of smuggling trinkets from one London to another. But when he unknowingly brings a forbidden piece of Black London across worlds, he sets in motion a series of events that could destroy everything he’s worked so hard to protect.

What I Loved

  • Design. Look at the cover of this book. It’s beautiful. I know that’s not something we’re supposed to consider, but come on. I knew zero things about this book and I still added myself to a ten person wait list at the library before its on-sale date.
  • Multiple Londons. This is world building at its best. These layered worlds are fascinating. I would have loved if this first book was only about Kell exploring these worlds and their different histories.
  • Cloaks. Kell, our protagonist, has a magic cloak that has multiple sides. By turning it inside out different ways he unveils multiple cloaks and coats. He occasionally loses things by forgetting which coat and coat pocket he’s put them in. It’s a creative, small piece of character/world building and I love it.  There’s something fantastic about a magical character with a piece of fantastical clothing. Kvothe has a series of cloaks, Harry’s is invisible, Frodo and Sam’s are gifted from Elves. Even Hagrid’s massive coat full of mice, owls and cakes fits this trope. It’s delightful every time.
  • Magical fascination with non-magical ways of life. When Kell is on trips away from his home in Red London to dull Grey London, he trades magical objects for small pieces of non-magical paraphernalia, like a music box. It reminds me simultaneously of Ariel’s trove and Arthur Weasley’s plug collection. Again, small detail in the story, but I love a magical person fascinated with the mundane, trivial objects in the normal world because for them, those objects are foreign.

What I Didn’t

  • Italics. On almost every single page, there are at least two words in italics. Why?! At first I thought it was a way for Schwab to highlight new words or concepts she invented for the book. That happens in fantasy all the time. But then, as the book continued, I realized it was a means of adding emphasis to the narrative. No offense to Schwab, but this read as lazy to me. An author’s word choice and narrative structure should communicate emphasis and tone, and to rely on italics seems a little cheap. It’s a small thing, but once I noticed it, I couldn’t ignore it and I felt jarred every time I came across an italic.
  • Blood magic. Schwab spends a large portion of the novel info-dumping about the rules of magic in her world instead of slowly unveiling pieces as we needed them. A portion of her world is lovely. Magic is something that is both internal, for individuals like Kell, and external, present in special objects and sources like the Thames river. It’s also somewhat personified. Those who use magic must respect it and speak kindly to it for it to cooperate. This was so wonderful and inventive, but the main functional component of magic in this work I abhorred.

Kell frequently cuts himself and uses his blood to manipulate magic. Blood is the one of the standard means of magical currency.  I found the use of it here wholly unsettling. Sometimes fantasy authors can use more barbaric and corporal means of magic effectively. This happens in Harry Potter with Lily’s sacrifice for Harry, in Narnia with Aslan, and in the Kingkiller Chronicles as well. Each of these, though, feels motivated and purposeful. The sacrifice is necessary, and treated as heavy, dark, and full of consequence. But in Schwab’s world, it felt like something meant to be dark or shocking for the sake of being dark or shocking rather than as the reality of a full, rich magical world.

  • Narrative style. The world building in this novel takes up most of the novel. Our two main characters don’t meet until a quarter of the book, and the main conflict isn’t introduced (though it’s tediously teased) until the midpoint of the novel. Although it’s not a young adult novel, the style of the prose feels heavily YA. That’s not always bad, but it felt stylistically different than what I usually expect in an adult fantasy novel. The paragraphs are short, the story moves quickly once it is introduced, and the plot is driven by action and unmotivated violence instead of compelling characters.

All in all, this book wasn’t for me. I read this book two weeks ago, and I had to rely heavily on my notes to remember the plot or even the two main characters. But it wasn’t terrible.

Read It If

You are a reader that devours fantasy. Some readers will love the darkness and quick-paced narrative style (once the main conflict is introduced) even though I didn’t. It’s absorbing and intense, with vengeance, bent morality, a fiesty female heroine, and brooding heroes. It’s also the first in a planned series, so there’s more to come if you love this book, which is a gamble usually worth the risk.

3/5 stars


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