Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Delilah “Lila” Bard’s hometown may be London in the year 1819, but she’s pretty sure she won’t be starring in a Regency romance any time soon. Life is tough for a pickpocket and mugger who has to disguise herself as a man to survive on the mean streets. Lila dreams of the freedom of the high seas, and hasn’t quite grasped that the golden age of piracy is over.
Things take a turn for Lila when she runs into a man and steals the black stone he’s carrying under the mistaken impression that it’s valuable. That man, Kell, tracks Lila down and explains that the broken stone is not so much valuable as dangerous, and the power it offers comes at too high a price. It turns out there are multiple Londons; Lila’s magic-poor world is known as Grey London, while Kell comes from magic-abundant Red London. There’s the dangerous White London, and the downright lethal Black London, the last of which the stone is a long-lost key to.
Kell is an antari, a born mage who can travel between the worlds. His official role is to be a messenger from Red London to Grey and White, but Kell’s been indulging in smuggling small artifacts back and forth, and now that habit has caught up to him. Not only has Lila attached herself to him (on the grounds that her life was already constantly endangered and magic couldn’t make that worse), but his fellow antari from White London, Holland, is stalking Kell with fell purpose.
This is the first volume of a trilogy. As such, it does set up an interesting fantasy world with potential for many stories. There are numerous hints dropped that sound interesting; Kell specifically doesn’t remember his past before starting his training as an antari (that’s not even his real name) and later we learn that there are holes in Lila’s backstory as well. Also, one of the guns mentioned in the story doesn’t fit the time period for Grey London.
The dangerousness of the black stone is conveyed well as its tempting powers corrupt the protagonists and overwhelm some minor characters.
Most of the characters came off as far too self-centered, particularly the protagonists. They are more sympathetic than the villains primarily by not wanting Red London to be eaten by dark magic, but otherwise show a “me-first” morality. Kell is whiny and smug towards the benighted Grey Londoners. There are some likable minor characters but most of those fall prey to an “anyone can die” plot structure.
There are some predictable bits: If a story introduces a dangerous forbidden place with an ominous name in the first chapter, you can be sure the hero will be headed there before the end of the story. But there are also some good twists, and the scenes in the Red Palace are chilling. (The White Palace is also dangerous, but we knew that going in.)
Content notes: There is attempted rape early on, and threats of it later. One of the villains wants to have non-consensual intimacy with Kell which is not technically sexual but reads that way. There’s also some sexually-tinged violence.
This volume ends satisfactorily enough that I don’t feel an urge to read the next one.
Overall, it’s an okay book that will be of most interest to readers looking for fantasy that’s just a bit older-skewing than young adult.