A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

Title: A Darker Shade of Magicadarkershadeofmagic

Author: Schwab, V.E. (Author’s Website)

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy

Bibliographic: Tor, 416 pages, Hardcover List Price $25.99, Paperback List Price $15.99, Audiobook CD List Price $29.99, Audiobook List Price $27.99, ISBNs 9780765376459, 9780765376466, 9781466851375

Publication Date: February 24, 2015

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Likeable, strong female, plot-driven, world building, fast-paced, atmospheric, descriptive

Why I picked it up: I was given a free copy of the audiobook and decided to listen to it for INFO 220.

S.I.A.S.: Kell’s been smuggling between the Londons for years, now someone’s set him up.

Summary: Kell is an Antari, a blood magician — one of only two currently known to exist — which means that he can travel between the Londons. There are four cities of London: Gray London, which has no magic; Red London, Kell’s home, where magic enriches life for nearly everyone; White London, where magic is used most frequently as a weapon; and Black London, which has already fallen to the forces of black magic. Only the Antari can travel between the worlds, and only with a token from the destination London — all other travel and all transfer of objects is banned.  Even Kell can only travel between worlds with the express purpose of facilitating communication between monarchs, although Kell has been illegally smuggling items back and forth for years.

Kell is a regular at a pub that exists in all three of his Londons — in gray London (the real, historical London, around the time of the British regency), it’s called The Stone’s Throw. Its owner, a man named Barron, has taken a young lady named Lila Bard into his protection. She’s a thief and a pickpocket with a heart of gold, who usually escapes the law by disguising herself as a young man.

When he was very small, Kell was adopted by the royal family of Red London and raised to be brothers with its prince, Rhy, who is about to turn twenty. Red London is in midst of preparations for a massive celebration, but Kell is sent to White London to deliver a message to the king and queen, a brother and sister named Athos and Astrid Dane, who are unusually cruel. As he’s leaving, an old woman begs him to take a letter to a relative of hers in Red London, thrusts the letter and Kell’s payment ( a wrapped parcel) into his hands, and leaves before he can decline her request. When Kell gets home, he decides that he may as well deliver the letter, only to find that he’s been set up. The parcel contains an artifact from Black London with the power to create magic out of nothing, and therefore with the power to destroy the world, at least as Kell knows it. Soldiers follow him back to his tavern, but when he escapes into Gray London someone is waiting to kill him. Lila Bard saves him, and demands that he take her with him on his quest to destroy the artifact.

Evaluation:  A Darker Shade of Magic is very well-written. I really didn’t expect to like it at all — I’ve owned it for months without listening to it — but I was surprised by how quickly I got sucked into the story and how much I enjoyed it, even if it was a little bit predictable. I think the book had a nice, clean ending and everything was tied together well. I think I probably will read the rest of the series, because I greatly enjoyed the characters, but since I’ve heard the second book ends on a cliffhanger I’ll wait until the third one is published. I don’t feel any compulsion to read it right away.

The characters were fantastic. I totally understood why they did the things they did, I loved the relationship between Kell and Lila. There’s one particularly good scene where she takes him to task for his unreasonable level of angst. I was a little disappointed at the end when it seemed like he might be romantically interested in her, but it was a very brief allusion. I would have no problems recommending this book to people who said they wanted fantasy novels without romance in them.

The narrator of this book, Steven Crossley, is absolutely fantastic, and maybe one of the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever encountered. His voices are well done and his pronunciation of the spells is easy to understand, even when the words are clearly not real words. A few years ago, I listened to the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and loved it, and this is the closest listening experience I’ve had to that (with the significant difference that A Darker Shade of Magic is a good twenty hours shorter than Jonathan Strange).

Significance: This is a historical fantasy novel with a strong female lead — and almost no romance! There is one kiss right near the end, and I’ll be shocked if Kell and Lila don’t have some romance in the sequels, but I liked that it was an afterthought and there’s definitely still the possibility that they’ll just be friends forever.

Readalikes: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susannah ClarkeThe Queen of the Tearling, by Erika JohansenUprooted, by Naomi Novik.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Even when she is given the opportunity to be beautiful for the masquerade, Lila chooses to dress as a man. Why is her disguise so important to her?
  2. Kell and Rye have a complicated relationship, which they seem to view very differently. Is Kell justified in feeling like an outsider within the royal family?
  3. What did you think of Kell’s assessment of the collectors and the curious?
  4. Why does Lila want to become a pirate so badly? Why might piracy have been particularly appealing for a woman?
  5. Do you believe in the possibility of alternate worlds? How is this different from other alternate universe fiction? Does it matter that it’s fantasy instead of science fiction?

Lists and Awards:  Library Journal Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. LibraryReads Favorites: 2015.

Professional Reviews:  NPR. Publishers’ Weekly. Kirkus. io9.

Leave a Reply