Victoria Schwab is well-established as a YA author. A Darker Shade of Magic is her second novel for adults, published under the name V E Schwab to distinguish it from her YA books. And it’s probably one of the novels I’ve enjoyed reading most this year.
A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of parallel Londons and of Kell, one of only two people, known as Antari, who can move between them. Kell acts as a messenger, ferrying messengers between the rulers of the parallel Londons. Kell’s home is ‘Red London’, a prosperous place rich in magic and ruled by benevolent monarchs. ‘White London’ is a place where magic is a hoarded asset, ruled by the most ambitious and the most brutal. ‘Grey London’ is a version of our own London, set during the Regency period. It’s a dull place, starved of most magic. The mysterious ‘Black London’ is closed to all, a victim of overpowering magic gone rampant.
As Kell travels between the worlds, he is tricked into transporting an item from one London to another. Transport of any item apart from letters between rulers is forbidden (though that hasn’t stopped Kell having a sideline as a smuggler of exotic goods) but this item is dangerous: a fragment of Black London imbued with forbidden magic.
Along the way Kell meets Lila Bard, a tomboyish young woman from Grey London who lives as a thief and dresses as a man. She lives by her wits and dreams of a life as a pirate, captain of her own ship. When adventure with Kell beckons, Lila is quick to leave her precarious life as a pickpocket.
What follows is a glorious adventure story filled with chases, magic and excitement. There are wonderful touches, like Kell’s coat, which depending on which way you turn it will produce a new coat, with the contents of its pockets intact from the last time you wore it that way. The Londons are distinct and vibrant, each a fully realised world.
The characterisation is great. Villains act out of ambition and desperation, rather than inherent evilness (rarer than you might think). The other characters are diverse, even if Lila falls into a slightly narrow tomboyish stereotype with the hints of a rather predictable love triangle. Prince Rhy (Kell’s foster brother) displays a Captain Jack-style omnisexuality and women hold positions of power in business and politics. There are signs that some complex characters (particularly Holland, the other Antari) may become extremely significant as the series develops.
I’m very excited to see where Schwab takes this series next. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s inventive and it’s full of energy.
Goodreads rating: 4*