With a concise roster of characters, this is a novel that keeps focus and draws your interest in to a plot of intrigue and magic.
I always find myself drawn towards fantasy epic in nature – full of gruelling battles and armies of characters. That is possibly why I have overlooked A Darker Shade of Magic for so long. It has been sitting in my Kindle catalogue for months, and I thought it was about time I gave it a go. I’m so glad I did because I was hooked from the offset, and this book has caused me many a late night as I became enthralled in its succinct narrative.
The story revolves around four different Londons, each the focal point of four very different realms, with very different characteristics. Red London, the home of our primary protagonist, Kell, one of the last remaining Antari, is a magical hub full of beauty and ruled by just leaders. Grey London, the one more akin to our own world, is largely ignorant to magic. White London is more violent, aggressive, full of magic, but with a more twisted intent as its inhabitants constantly battle for the throne. Finally, there is Black London. That is the London that is cut off from the rest after magic took control and became a danger to all the other realms. Kell, an Antari, is a young master of blood magic, capable of travelling to the different Londons. He is a servant to the Red London crown; part of their family. And he is also a smuggler of illegal contraband. During one of his visits to White London, he is entrusted with a very dangerous relic. A relic that could destroy the fragile peace between the worlds.
The story is not going to win any awards for originality. Our young protagonist comes in to possession of a dangerous McGuffin that could spell the end of days. But that is not a criticism because even the simplest and most recognised of stories can be lauded when they have as much layer and emotion as A Darker Shade of Magic has. In its finer details, this book can be set well above many others in the fantasy genre. And it is absolutely brimming with intrigue. Not all questions are answered by the end of the book, but that does not leave you feeling cheated. It’s how it should be in a series of novels. It keeps enticed, demanding that you read the next entry, and you only feel too happy to oblige. Black London is a portent of disaster, but details are drip fed in mere titbits, promising something epic. Both main characters, Lila Bard and Kell, have backgrounds steeped in mystery, giving you glimpses that there is much more to be told about them. Even each of the other Londons have a modicum of depth revealed. You come away from this knowing that there is much more to learn, and eager to learn it.
The magic, the focal point of the whole story, is deceptively intricate. The first experience you get of the magic is from Kell’s perspective. He is Antari, apparently one of only two who still remain, and he works in harmony with magic through his own blood. This allows him to carry out many feats, foremost of which is travel between Londons. Then we learn that it is not only the Antari who can use magic, but also many inhabitants of both White and Red London and, to a lesser extent, Grey London. These normal people, though, are able to use magic, but in a far more limited way. Many have power over only one element, and that strength varies depending on the individual. As it progresses, the story entices you with another kind of magic, one far darker and more malicious. This magic, borne of Black London, coalesces in tendrils of smoke and seeks to oppress rather than aid. Schwab depicts magic as a sentient entity by invoking thoughts of will, dominance, the need of either subjugation or assistance between man and magic. The way the magic is ruled is very much the mirror of how the Londons are ruled and provokes the ideal of whether dominance or succour derive the best response.
The magic isn’t the only deceptively complex aspect of the story. The characters are so well developed, which is in large part because there is only a few of them vying for your focus. I found Kell to be excellent. Burdened with being one of, what seems to be, only two Antari left, he is deified by all, even those who oppose him. He is in control of himself and his magic. At least, that is how it seems. The more you read, the more you realise that Kell is not flawless and he is not truly an adult. He is twenty-one years old, which truly exacerbates the burden of his role as part deity, part servant, part emissary between worlds. This is highlighted further in his interactions with the only other Antari in the novel, Holland. Compared to Holland’s poise and calmness, Kell’s inexperience really shines through. When faced with death, he realises just how much he wants to live. With so much power and wealth at his disposal, he acts human by rebelling against the just authority that he is under. Kell is strong willed and powerful, but he is also young and for that, as a reader, you root for him from the off and you find yourself eager to discover the mystery of his hidden past, even if it means binge reading the whole series of books.
Lila Bard is another triumph. With her, Schwab takes the cliché of the young anti-hero thief who does what is necessary to survive and adds real personality to it. Lila is never boring and never falls in to the grimdark trap of committing crimes so heinous that the reader cannot connect with her. She is the product of a cruel world but is never corrupted by it. She murders only when necessary and steals only to survive. She has aspirations of adventure, but always finds herself compelled to do the right thing, often for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. There is just enough grit in her character and in spite of everything, her tone adds a realistic humour to the often dire scenario.
If there was one area where this book stumbles a little, it would be in the main villains of the piece. The Dane twins, Astrid and Athos, are a little too clichéd. They seem to crave power only to dominate. We are given no further motive than this, which makes them a little run-of-the-mill. They are cruel simply for the sake of being cruel and there is never any real depth to their backstories that grabbed my interest. Their interactions with Kell were interesting enough not to be boring, but sometimes felt just a little empty. Holland, on the other hand, is truly a tragic character. Not a villain through choice, but he’s a malevolent force nonetheless. Any scenes with him and Kell are a joy to read. His presence envelops the page and draws you to wish with all your heart that he is able to find redemption.
It could be said that calling the Danes the main antagonists is probably a misinterpretation. In truth, the only reason I have is because they are, outwardly the greatest threat. I guess, the true villain of the story would be magic itself. More specifically, the eponymous darker magic from Black London. Not always so outwardly or obviously malevolent as the Danes, the magic is more of an insidious enemy, growing throughout the book, becoming more and more visceral in its nature. This villain is far better portrayed for it is done so with a deft hand and a confident grasp by the author. The motive for it is unclear, but it promises far more in later books. In a series such as this, the antagonist needs to be developed slowly and nurtured by the author, and that is exactly what Schwab has done.
When your only criticism of a novel is that one aspect of the villain triumvirate is slightly underdeveloped, you know that you have an excellent story. A Darker Shade of Magic’s greatest victory is in its simplicity, for in that it has managed to add layers of intrigue and character development that will keep you intrigued. I have only just finished this book, but I will immediately be diving in to part two!