STARRED REVIEW
February 25, 2015

A world-spanning fantasy adventure

By V. E. Schwab
Review by
In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, three versions of London exist side by side in parallel universes. There’s Grey London, where magic is basically extinguished; Red London, where it’s abundant; and White London, where it’s somewhere in between (and where the control of it as a resource is jealously and viciously contested). There was also a fourth—Black London—whose inhabitants were devoured by magic and which should no longer exist. Schwab’s male protagonist, Kell, is one of the few with the power to travel between those Londons, and as such, serves as a diplomatic courier of sorts between the monarchies of each.
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In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, three versions of London exist side by side in parallel universes. There’s Grey London, where magic is basically extinguished; Red London, where it’s abundant; and White London, where it’s somewhere in between (and where the control of it as a resource is jealously and viciously contested). There was also a fourth—Black London—whose inhabitants were devoured by magic and which should no longer exist. Schwab’s male protagonist, Kell, is one of the few with the power to travel between those Londons, and as such, serves as a diplomatic courier of sorts between the monarchies of each.

As premises go, it’s a solid yet simple framework that is both easily grasped and potentially rich to mine. Of course, it’s one thing to have an interesting setting, and another to bring that world (or worlds) to life. Fortunately, Schwab populates her many Londons with compelling heroes, villains and bit players. Kell is joined as the primary protagonist by Delilah Bard, a Grey London resident whose name and aspirations could have come straight from the D&D gaming table (or perhaps the Dragon Age character creation screen). That may sound like faint praise, but again, it’s what Schwab does with her characters after the initial outline that matters, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to become engrossed in the fortunes of Bard, especially after she pickpockets a certain worlds-traveling mage and lifts an item of dark origin and dangerous power.

Ultimately, A Darker Shade of Magic feels familiar, especially to anyone who has read any of the stories in Robert Lynn Asprin’s classic Thieves’ World shared-world anthology. Though crisply drawn, the depths of Schwab’s characters are pretty quickly and clearly plumbed—a reader won’t be left wondering too long about who the real villain is or from where comes the real threat. But it’s a familiarity that breeds interest, and this is less a weakness than the result of a writer who recognizes and employs the shorthand native to the genre in which she works.

By novel’s end, readers may be left wondering if the various threats haven’t been resolved in a manner that’s a tad too tidy. (They have been.) And they will certainly be curious if new adventures await. (Let’s hope so.) But regardless, they will have likely found the time with Kell, Bard and the rest of the inhabitants of the three Londons time well spent.

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