A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
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.
There is something genuinely magical about London. I can’t tell you what it is exactly, but I’m sure this unknown quantity is what keeps authors incorporating this vibrant metropolis into their fantasy fiction. V. E. Schwab has taken things one-step further. In her latest novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, she spoils us with four different variations of this magical city, four different faces of London; each unique, each different from the other but still connected at the most basic elemental level.
When we first encounter Kell he is a bit of an enigma. He has a close relationship with the ruling family of Red London and is tasked with delivering missives to the ‘other’ royal families of the ‘other’ Londons. There is a sense of otherworldliness that permeates from him. He wears a miraculous coat that acts as camouflage wherever he goes, allowing him to blend in seamlessly. Delilah ‘Lila’ Bard lives in our world, but longs for escape. The dark, grimy streets of Grey London offer little but violence and crime. A chance encounter with Kell provides an opportunity for Lila to turn her back on her old life and embrace something new.
The familiarity of Grey London gives way to the magical streets of Red London. Here Kell leads Lila across a city where humanity has learned to embrace and live in harmony with magic forces. In every society however, there are always dark elements and Kell has enemies who mean to do him, his friends and family harm.
Meanwhile in White London, magic is to be mastered and controlled. Practitioners bend magical forces to their will and the most powerful rise to the top. In this world, magic is power and power is everything. The denizens of White London view the other Londons with envious eyes and draw their plans.
The last variant, Black London, is mentioned throughout and though it is never visited it does however play a hugely important part in proceedings. I can only hope that any future novels featuring these characters will travel there. I’m insanely curious to learn more about the darkest version of London that exists.
All these vividly different versions of London are so well realised, it often feels like each iteration is a character in its own right. Kell is one of the few who gets to experience it all, and there are those who are jealous of the powers he gets to wield.
The story is wrapped up nicely but there are a couple of subtle clues suggesting that there is still more of this tale left to be told. I love the idea that there are multiple versions of the same place that exist side by side but remain largely ignorant of one another. These parallel Londons each have their purpose, their place, but are also all part of a much larger whole.
I’ve not read Vicious, V.E. Schwab’s other novel, but based on how much I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic this is an oversight I need to remedy that as soon as possible. I was talking to a friend the other day, he had devoured the book as well, and we were both of the same opinion – Kell and Lila are loads of fun and the multiple Londons are hugely entertaining to read. Perfectly paced and engrossing to boot I can sum up the entire experience in two words – more please!
A Darker Shade of Magic is published by Titan Books and is available now. Great stuff, well worth your time, I’d recommend it highly. You just can’t beat a bit of historical urban fantasy, especially when it is executed so flawlessly.