Hardcover, 398 pages
Published February 24th 2015 by Tor Books
A Darker Shade of Magic is a wildly creative book, encompassing parallel worlds that, for the sake of the book’s POV, contain four variations of the city of London. Our main protagonist, Kell, is a magician, who possesses the increasingly rare ability to travel between these Londons, and thus is afforded a life as, essentially, an honorary prince for a noble family, used to travel between these parallel Londons and relay messages between the royal families of each. His London, “Red” London, is still magical, still a place where folks like Kell are embraced. “White” London…not so much. Magic is scarce there. “Grey” London has no magic remaining, no signs of it, little to no knowledge of it. And “Black” London? Well, we don’t really want to talk about Black London.
The worldbuilding for the book is a lot of fun – there aren’t a TON of details about each individual London to go around, but the entire situation is handled fluidly by Schwab, keeping things interesting while introducing the concepts, never leaving the reader feeling as though they’re the victim of a textbook-style infodump, while simultaneously getting a lot of relevant items across. Kell’s early struggles seamlessly expose us to the majority of the information we need, including the creative blood magic that he (and one of his counterparts) possess, as well as the varying differences between the parallel Londons.
The writing quality of the book stays consistent – Schwab has a very eloquent, approachable prose, that keeps the pages turning. I felt as though I was finally getting some of that ‘whimsy’ that everyone is so in love with in books – it felt like a bit of a cross between Neil Gaiman and, say, Jo Walton. The book had a fairy-tale quality overall, but without sacrificing it’s structure and validity in the process. The dialogue was generally snappy and witty, the various characters bright and vibrant.
However, the main issue I took with the book was, in fact, it’s characters. Not because they were poorly written, but because I just didn’t like them. Kell, for a powerful magician with a rather interesting history, is often 10-ply soft. He waxes emotional poetic about how the family that took him in, cared for him, accepted him as one of their own, and provided him with many of the luxuries and power of a full fledged royal did not love him enough, or the motivations behind their acceptance of him. He gives in to almost everyone, then will turn around and use very powerful magic to kill someone. It was an interesting dichotomy, and often the switches back and forth were jarring. That said, I felt connected to him, I felt some understanding of his struggles, and I felt for him as he watched his princely brother suffer and almost die, the closest friend he had.
The bigger problem, however, was our secondary protagonist, Lila. Lila is a pickpocket/thief in grey London, and robs Kell of an important bauble that could have huge-scale negative effects if it fell into the wrong hands, and forces Kell to pursue her. The issue I took was that Lila was gods damned obnoxious. She was arrogant, childish, extremely immature, self-centered, and downright annoying at times. She was, essentially, every negative aspect you could pick out if you hung around a group of middle school preteens, wrapped into one adult-aged overgrown brat. She is ungrateful, defiant in EVERY way, so self-aggrandizing as to think she’s significantly more important and powerful than she is, and essentially constantly says “no” to everyone and everything said to her. Yet, somehow, she comes out as the hero in the end, which was a VERY “YA” style touch, to me. I appreciate what Schwab was trying to do with her, but she just came across as a constant thorn in everyone’s side, a TERRIBLE person overall, and one of the most grating characters I’ve ever had to read.
I would find myself reading the book, smiling, really enjoying the whimsy and story progression, then it would be broken up by Lila acting out like a petulant preteen, and I would immediately groan and be taken out of my enjoyment and immersion in the story. It’s frustrating to read other reviews and see people loving Lila – I just found her to be abhorrent, some ways blatant and some subtle; she reveled in murder, bragging to Kell about how much she enjoyed the aspects of killing. She reveled in her self-centered thievery, robbing those who cared for her and gave her love, despite her complete lack of appreciation. She refused to listen to any instructions or suggestions, instead selfishly hoarding the magical item for her own use and putting it in constant further peril. She was, frankly, a monster.
I’d like to clarify, here, that I don’t rate down books because people act badly, or are evil. Jorg Ancrath is a terrible person, but I loved him and his stories. However, Lila has a grating quality, and it felt like every third thing she said or did made me physically cringe, made me uncomfortable, made me angry and annoyed. She was well-written as that style of character, and I feel like everyone knows some obnoxious, self-centered snob like Lila in real life, to compare her to. However, the “annoying” factor really drug her down for me.
That giant rant aside, Lila’s nature did not take away from the book quite enough to drag it down. Schwab’s writing was wonderful, and the story had a fantastic ‘feel’ to it. The actual plot of the story wasn’t the most creative ever, but at this point, there’s only so many different story types to choose from. The details, however, were creative and lovely, and I enjoyed the way that, despite the main character having control over the magics, they still felt powerful, rare, scarce. The worldbuilding, overall, was really well done, and really transported me into the story. I can’t rightly give exceptional marks to a story where I hated a character so much, however, the rest of the story warranted praise, and I can safely say that I really enjoyed the book overall, and plan to read the sequels.