A Dependable Fantasy in “A Darker Shade of Magic”

A magician, a thief, and an intriguing world

A few weeks ago, I was bored and felt nostalgic for some bad steampunk. I found a cheap YA steampunk novel (it was indeed bad but I enjoyed it anyways) and when I finished it my friend asked, “Do you want a book that doesn’t suck?” With that introduction, she handed me V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

Prepare to be dazzled by a world of parallel Londons — where magic thrives, starves, or lies forgotten, and where power can destroy just as quickly as it can create.

There are four worlds, stacked like pieces of paper, only connected through London. Magic runs through each one but not evenly: Red London is drunk with magic, Grey London is fading, White London is starving, and Black London is a whispered legend. Kell, a powerful magician from Red London, is one of the few magicians who can travel between worlds (except, of course, Black London) as a royal ambassador. He uses his powers to smuggle trinkets between the worlds, a dangerous past time that crosses his path with Grey London pickpocket extraordinaire, Delilah Bard. First an adversary, then his savior, Kell and Lilah work together to fight off a darker magic to save their worlds.

Unlike Kell’s complicated navigation of the worlds, A Darker Shade of Magic is a pretty straightforward fantasy adventure. A solid storyline with plenty of plot twists and turns, it’s a quick and enjoyable read. Though a bit trope-y at times, I loved the characters and seeing their realistic development and depth. Most of the book focuses mainly on Kell, telling his points of view, thoughts, and story as he navigates through the dangerous magic he stumbles upon. But once Lilah is introduced, we hear more of her point of view and she stands out as one kickass kleptomaniac and heroine. For all of the ways each character fits into their genre — young angsty warlock, street smart pickpocket, charming prince, cruel royalty— they also have a strong, independent voice and personality.

Life-size cutouts of the main cast. Photo taken from V. E. Scwhab’s website

However, I liked the series best for the effortless world building in the stories, the ways that Schwab created four different dimensions so familiar and yet fantastic. Her world building is truly magical, balancing the four Londons and giving each its own distinct feel and imagery. I enjoyed reading about each city and trying to place where it was supposed to be in ours (for the record, I think Grey London is ours, the rest are pure imagination.) The magic in each wove itself naturally through the story; the main focus of the plot, but always as a natural given of the world instead of a thing that needed constant exposition. Creating one magic-based fantasy setting is hard enough, but this bitch created four.

I’m still in the middle of the second book, so I can’t give too much thought on the whole series — maybe I’ll do a trilogy review. But my friend was right, A Darker Shade of Magic indeed does not suck. In fact, it’s pretty great. It’s a solid first book for the trilogy, of which the third and final installment — “A Conjuring of Magic” — just released a few days ago. If you’re like me and looking for a reprieve from our actual world, V. E. Schwab’s four Londons is the perfect fantasy world to get lost in.