Yay! A Fantasy Novel That Actually Lives Up to Its Superb World-Building

Review - A Darker Shade of Magic


I have to admit, I’ve had kind of a mixed experience with big fantasy novels lately. I’ve started a lot of books that were the first in a series or a new standalone, only to get bogged down 200 pages in as the books kept introducing more and more characters and bits of random info, while the main characters and major story lines just sort of spun their wheels. Everybody wants to front-load their fantasy sagas with as much complexity as possible. And I’m a sucker for a cool setting with a fun, ornate story behind it — just as long as the front story is as compelling as the backstory.

So A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab feels like a priceless object, brought from another, better world of fantasy books. It has a seriously fascinating universe, but also manages to tell a story with enough excitement and momentum to make all of the world-building feel urgent and relevant. Although the book does take a bit of time to get off the ground with exposition filling the first 100 pages, it quickly starts to pay off.

So, here’s a brief synopsis with only minor spoilers. In A Darker Shade of Magic, there are four separate universes (like Fringe, sort of) and only a couple of magically gifted people can travel from one to the other. Each has its own version of London.  There’s Grey London, where magic basically doesn’t exist. There’s Red London, where everybody learns to understand magic. There’s White London, where magic is a savage force and people fight to enslave it and to rule over everyone else. And then there’s Black London, where a kind of magical apocalypse happened.

Basically, at some point in the past Black London’s experiments with tapping the source of magic went horribly wrong, and Black London had to be sealed off from the other three worlds. The people of Red London abandoned White London, leaving White London as a kind of firebreak between them and Black London.

The book has two main characters.  Kell is one of the travelers who can go between the different Londons. Kell works as a royal messenger, delivering letters between the Kings and Queens of Red London, Grey London and White London, and he’s been adopted by the royal family in Red London as their own son.  Kell does have a brotherly relationship with the heir to the throne, Prince Rhy. He also has a bad habit of smuggling items between the different Londons, to sell or trade — not just for profit, but for his own personal collection.

Meanwhile, Delilah “Lila” Bard is a pickpocket and thief, who disguises herself as a man to plunder the streets of Grey London — but she dreams of getting her own ship and becoming a sea pirate.

Kell and Lila meet when Kell winds up with an incredibly dangerous magical object — and then Lila steals it from him. Soon they find that they’re caught up in a deadly conspiracy, and they have to rely on each other to survive and restore the balance of magic.

Part of what makes this book work as well as it does is the engaging main characters, who have the combination of good hearts and huge character flaws. That’s hard to resist in heroic fantasy characters. And the relationship between the super-privileged Kell and the hardscrabble Lila is pretty much a nonstop source of delight. There are lots of great exchanges like this one:

[Lila] pulled out the pistol and began to reload it. “Are you ready?” she asked, spinning the chamber.

Kell gazed through the gate at the waiting castle. “No.”

At that, she offered him the sharpest edge of a grin. “Good,” she said. “The ones who think they’re ready always end up dead.”

Or this one:

“I’ve got a question,” Lila said, her pockets jingling suspiciously.

“Of course you do.” Kell sighed, opening his eyes. “And I thought I said no thieving.”

Once the story gets rolling full-tilt, which does take a few chapters, it’s pretty much relentless in its pace and inventiveness.

Yay, This Fantasy Novel Actually Lives Up To Its Superb World-Building

Schwab’s writing is engaging and vivid, conveying a sense of place but also imbuing objects and places with a lot of personality, which comes back to reflect on the viewpoints of the characters. You can read the first chapter here, and its evocative description of “our” London, as compared to Kell’s own magical Red London.  It helps tell us a lot about Kell and shows us the differences between the two worlds.

The painstaking work that Schwab does to set up a few different believable worlds, as well as careful rules for how magic works, pays off over and over again as the book goes on — Kell’s predicament becomes even scarier and intense, because the stakes feel clear and consistent, and each fresh development feels like it makes sense.

A Darker Shade of Magic is an addictively fun adventure in which Kell and Lila are constantly on the run and trying to set right a situation that’s going more and more wrong. The concept of jumping from world to world isn’t overused (partly because there are rules that circumscribe it) and the villains are severely menacing and loathsome, while still having a legitimate point of view.

That said, there are definitely some flaws — one major subplot bubbles along for a large part of the book, without actually ever quite going anywhere. Lila’s journey from selfishness to selflessness moves a bit too much like clockwork. The book’s climax includes a moment where we’re told that some major characters have been rescued from a danger that we were barely aware they were ever in. And so on.

But those are minor complaints about a book that kept me engrossed by its story every bit as much as I was fascinated by its complex, multilayered world. This is a great example of a fantasy book whose world-capital is backed by the full faith and credit of its mighty storytelling.