V.E. Schwab made a name for herself (writing as Victoria Schwab) with the young adults novels The Near Witch (2011), The Archived (2013) and The Unbound (2014). A Darker Shade of Magic is her second foray into adult fiction after 2014’s well-received Vicious. Here Schwab explores the way magic operates across parallel universes.
There are four worlds . . . Think of them as different houses built on the same foundation. They have little in common, save for their geography, and the fact that each has a version of this city straddling this river on this island country, and in each, that city is called London.
“Grey London” is the real-world London of 1811-20, during the regency of the future George IV (1762-1830). Magic barely exists here. Grey London is home to Lila Bard, a young pickpocket with dreams of adventure.
In “Red London,” a benevolent monarchy rules over a society that values a harmonious relationship with magic, its motto, “Power in balance. Balance in power.” The most powerful magician in Red London is Kell, one of the last members of the ancient race of Antari and an adopted member of the royal family. His brother Rhy, the crown prince, is a gadabout with little talent for magic. Since only Antari can travel between worlds, Kell serves as ambassador of the Red Throne in its relations with the other Londons. This also facilitates his side trade as a smuggler of items between universes, a practice expressly forbidden by his adoptive parents.
“White London” is a cutthroat land where people fight to drain all the magic they can from both the environment and each other. Two twins, Astrid and Athos Dane, fought their way to the crown by a creed of “Power in dominance.” They control the only other Antari in existence, the cold-blooded Holland, who serves as their ambassador.
“Black London” no longer exists. Magic once flowed most easily here, so easily that the entire world was consumed by it. The fall of Black London caused the other three Londons to seal themselves off from one another. This is why only Antari can travel between worlds, and why smuggling is forbidden.
Kell and Lila are the novel’s protagonists. When Kell inadvertently carries a dangerous object from White London into Grey London, light-fingered Lila can’t help but relieve him of it. They both quickly find themselves in all-out war with the Dane twins as the fate of three universes hangs in the balance.
Schwab has invented an intriguing system of magic. There are no Harry Potters waving magic wands here. In A Darker Shade of Magic, the cost of a spell is blood. Kell keeps a knife handy to open his own veins in order to unlock the gates between worlds. The power-hungry denizens of White London are really lusting after one another’s blood. This means that magic is never taken for granted here, and the idea of magic maintains its punch until the end of the novel.
A Darker Shade of Magic appears to be the start of a new series. The novel tells a complete story, but there are some questions left unanswered. One area in particular that I wish I had known more about was the nature of Kell’s relationship with the royal family of Red London. His closeness with prince Rhy is crucial to the story, although we don’t get a strong sense of it, particularly since Kell seems rather distant from the king and queen. I hope to see this backstory fleshed out further in later books.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a great adventure story with fully-realized characters in an intriguing world—or, more accurately, in intriguing worlds. V.E. Schwab expertly ratchets up the tension in the novel’s exciting conclusion, yet still leaves plenty for her characters to do in later volumes of the series. I look forward to joining Kell and Lila on their further adventures.