A Darker Shade of Magic is the first in a new series by author Victoria Schwab, who had previously primarily published YA fiction and is presumably using the V.E. Schwab pen-name as a separator between her types of work. A story of magic, multiple instances of the city of London set in the late 1700s. Our protagonist Kell is a particular kind of special magician who is one of the few trusted to travel between the various alternate Londons, and acts generally as a go-between to the various versions’ royal families. While the general concept is interesting, the use of London is so overdone in the past few years that it alone was enough to bring me in not enthused. I’ll grant before I get started that I was only sent a preview copy of this novel, and not the whole thing (about 120 pages of the 400 page length) so your mileage may vary with some of what I have to say since I don’t know for sure where it all goes, but in general, I felt we had a good couple characters with a reasonable story in a boring setting.
Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped.
N.B. This is a review of the PREVIEW copy of the novel, comprising only 25% of the total length. This is what they sent for review, so it’s all I can speak to. If something later on contradicts a criticism I’ve leveled, or a compliment I’ve raised, I can only plead ignorance.
London. Man, why is it always London? I know I know, long rich history, lots of well-known landmarks that are still kicking around, mostly white authors of English descent. There are all kinds of reasons why London, but you know what would be great? Not London. Europe has all kinds of old and awesome cities that could be the focal point of your narrative. As soon as I saw “alternate London” I just sort of went ‘ugh, okay then.’ I felt more like I was buckling down than gearing up. I suppose the one thing it had going for it was the fact that other than being called London, they cities apparently have next to nothing in common. Oh except that there’s a magical bar that also happens to be in the same place in all the cities. The Londons are also colour-coded for our benefit. The one we know, our world, is Grey London. The one the main character Kell comes from is Red London, which is super nice, and full of magic, and rainbows. Then there is stark, sort of evil White London, and hopefully no longer existing or at least completely cut off from everybody actually evil Black London. The royalty in each one directly reflects these vague themes, to an almost hyperbolic degree. The whole thing feels a little pasted together. Granted I only read a quarter of the novel, but I read the first quarter, the one where Schwab should be painting me a beautiful picture of each London to make sure I really feel it. But all I came away with was Grey=Boring, Red=Great, White=Mostly Evil, Black=All Evil. Lost opportunity.
One thing A Darker Shade of Magic did have going for it was the magic system, again with what little I saw of it. We’ve got a fairly typical elemental control sort of Last Airbender kind of thing, with earth, air, fire, water and bone being the elements. Most people who can do magic have a particular affinity with one and rarely others. Kell is an Antari, which so far appears to mean he can do every kind of magic, and also maybe he’s got some evil something in him, because he can do blood magic, which is the magic of command. The actual execution of what little magic we see besides his blood-based travelling magic was pretty cool. The descriptions of his elemental manipulations read really well. Definitely good future-movie stuff.
As for the plot of A Darker Shade of Magic, it’s difficult to say. This was definitely a specifically crafted preview of the story, since it basically ends on the cliffhanger part where you’d have your first commercial break. I have a feeling from what I’ve read so far that it’s going to be reasonably interesting, but with some of the tropey crud that I feel bogs a lot of stories down. The whole interplay between Kell and Delilah Bard mentioned in the publisher description just reeks of Manic Pixie Dream Girl stuff, though Kell is a character that doesn’t read like the typical protagonist in those stories. But the fact that they basically run into each other Meet-Cute style doesn’t bode well. What I saw of Delilah on her own was pretty great. She had aspirations, goals, guts, and didn’t need to be protected even while avoiding being just a guy with breasts. But with the kind of set up where I was left, I just had this image of Kell being Hugh Grant in the movie and shuddered a little. Some of the other reviews I’ve seen have been wondering how much romance is in this book and how much potential for it there is. So far I feel like ‘It’ll be there, and I’ll wish it wasn’t.’ Kell goes and does things, but any time he does something ‘wrong’ he has this little thrill of disobeying that is just begging for a crazy fun-loving female character to pull him out of his shell, and I’m very much afraid that it’ll ruin Delilah for me if I read the rest of the book and the later books in the series. Another lost opportunity.
I feel like I should cut this short just in case the preview isn’t representative of the whole in a way that makes you feel misled by the review! Altogether I enjoyed what I read as much as I could, given my unease about where it was going and my general dislike of throwing ANOTHER ‘Magical London’ book on the ever-growing heap. I’d like to see more of the magic system, and hope that Delilah doesn’t just turn into a zany foil and love interest for Kell. I’ll probably be picking up the full novel just to satisfy my curiosity. Maybe I’ll put together a comparative review based on this, as part of a look at how preview excerpts work compared to full novels. Fun times.
Dan received a Preview Excerpt of this novel from Tor Books via NetGalley