Book one in the Shades of Magic series, V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is a delightful, instantly engaging adventure story in a fantasy setting of linked worlds and blood magic. Each world is unique, but connected by a common factor – they each contain a city called London on the same spot, cities which were once linked freely but can now only be moved between by a tiny handful of individuals known as Antari. Kell, one of the last remaining Antari, is a risk taker – when luck catches up with him he finds himself trapped in the only London without magic of its own.
To say much more would spoil the joy of finding out what happens for yourself, but suffice to say the worldbuilding here is phenomenal. Take the basic idea – Red London, White London, Grey London and the semi-mythical Black London, no longer intertwined but still inextricably linked. Not only is that instantly intriguing but Schwab elegantly sets each one apart through as many subtle details (each London has a unique scent for example, of which its own citizens are unaware) as obvious ones, while the explanation for the naming convention is a charming, clever little detail. The system of magic – so crucial to a fantasy story – is fresh and compelling and dark, and everything just feels filled with detailed history and character.
Kell is very much the heart of the story, right from the opening line. He’s engaging and relatable, an interesting mix of talent, bravery and naivety with a backstory that’s clearly fully-formed even though it’s only hinted at in this story. Schwab imbues him with just the right balance of power and vulnerability for the reader to believe in him, but for the perils he faces to feel genuinely threatening. He makes for a great protagonist, nicely balanced by a range of characters with much more ambiguous aims and intentions, from his dangerous fellow Antari Holland to the royals of each of the Londons, each a representation of their own realm in microcosm. The other standout character, Lila in Grey London, is a tough, street-savvy soul whose vulnerability is hidden under a veneer of sharpness. Without Kell she would have made an excellent protagonist herself, but here she works well as a clever, grounded contrast to Kell’s mysticism.
Worldbuilding and characters are all well and good, but thankfully they’re wrapped around a thrilling, hugely entertaining adventure story. It’s the sort of plot that lures you into the story and doesn’t let go, pacy but not rushed and all carefully thought out. There’s maybe the odd thread which isn’t really pulled, and occasionally events feel a touch telegraphed, but then that’s a small price to pay for a story that for the most part feels excitingly familiar without veering into cliched territory. Sure, it’s not groundbreaking as such, but it’s definitely an interesting, fresh take on the fantasy novel that’s great fun, really cleverly thought out and beautifully executed. As the first book in a series it also manages to work as a standalone story if you really only want to read one book, but it’s filled with enough hints and links forward that you’ll be hard pressed not to want to go out and buy the second.