Series: Shades of Magic #1
Published by Tor Books on February 24th, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.
Officially, Kell is the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that 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 take her with him for her proper adventure.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — a feat trickier than they hoped.
“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
And what an adventure A Darker Shade of Magic is! As promised by the alluring title and the premise, you will be whisked away to a world – actually, several parallel worlds – of power, danger, and dark magic. A Darker Shade of Magic is an imaginative and marvellously written fantasy with multi-layered world-building, a set of promising characters, and an action-packed plot. And I’d kill to get my grabby hands on one of those magical multi-sided coats Kell has.
The multi-verse concept brought to life four different Londons, each of those comes with detailed descriptions, laws and traditions, and distinctive history. Or in Lila’s words: Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London. The world-building, rich in its detail and imagination, was utterly compelling and one of my favourite aspects of A Darker Shade of Magic. And though it is multi-dimensional, it is still simple to comprehend. Kell, our charming and mischievous male lead, travels through gateways between the Londons by magic. The magic system is a combination of elemental bending, blood-bound magic (only mastered by the Antari), and utterly dark, evil magic. The fascination, obsession, and thirst for magic and power is palpable in this book, with grabby hands lurking behind every corner, from the commoners to the highest ranking officials. Making use of this greed, Kell has commenced his own little black market where he trades with artefacts from other Londons, as some people will literally sell their soul to get their hands on magical objects. Unsurprisingly, this eventually gets Kell into a lot of trouble, but I shall say no more.
In the shadow of epic world-building and a great plot are the characters, which are as enjoyable as they are typical for fantasy protagonists. Kell and Lila come with a set of strengths, skills, and flaws, and both of them are the epitome of mischief. Kell is a powerful magician who struggles with his solitary existence as one of the last Antari, being either worshipped to the extreme or utterly misunderstood by his social environment. He’s lonely and yet overly confident in his powers. His intentions and behaviour, though he means no harm, often take a turn for the worse. His loyalty and bravery won me over in a heartbeat. Lila, a thief with a backbone of steel, is a strong female lead but she’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Where Kell is risk-prone, Lila is outright reckless. She’s snarky, confident, stubborn, and definitely not reluctant to use a little violent force to get what she wants. And she knows exactly what she wants, her number one aspiration being to become a pirate with a ship of her own. Rhy is a confident, charming, if a little spoiled prince with a big mouth. But behind all that glamour hides a feeling of inferiority, which plays a key role in the plot and I loved it. He is, however, not present enough in the first instalment, and only in the second does his character truly begin to shine. I absolutely adored the witty, quick-tongued banter between Kell and Lila/Rhy. These characters will give you life. The cast of characters seems pretty fleshed out at first, though they certainly strike me as fantasy stereotypes, but this is only true on the surface. What prevented me from fully connecting with them was that, if you dig deeper than the surface, you won’t find any backstories. This is something I direly need to be improved in the sequel.
Holland is the antagonist you’re secretly rooting for, even though he’s giving the main characters hell. He’s both the villain and the victim, which makes you simultaneously hate him but feel sorry for him, too. The evil force was a bit black and white, and it wasn’t complex enough for my taste. With the villain, I need to understand the workings of the mind even better than with the main characters whose head I’m in, because no one is an antagonist for no reason.
The plot kept me hooked from start to finish. While it does have a certain predictability, as it follows a typical fantasy storyline, there is tons of action, magic, violence, and sweet moments between Kell and Lila. The romantic subplot is very subtle, which is typically Schwab. Their commencing relationship relies heavily on the reader’s interpretation and imagination, but I like that Schwab doesn’t lay it on thick when it comes to romance but focuses on the dominant storyline instead. This is why I predominantly read fantasy, not contemporary. It goes without saying that, with the chemistry these two have, this ship must set sail.
The writing is something to gush over, I’m telling you. I cannot fathom how a writing style can be so clear and concise and yet work with such exquisite, elegant wording. Schwab is right up there with Marie Rutkoski and Laini Taylor when it comes to my all time favourite writing styles.
In short, A Darker Shade of Magic is a compelling first instalment in a fantasy series not to be missed. This book has laid the foundation for exploring an intricate magic system, power relations, a dark antagonistic force, and a sweet romance.