Magic comes in many shapes, sizes, forms, and — in this case — colours as we discover in V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.
Kell is an Antari, a blood magician, and almost one of a kind as his people have long been an endangered species.
Using his magic he can will the elements of water, wind, fire, blood, and bone to do his will, but he can use his magic to create portals to separate realities.
Many years ago there were four Londons all arranged on top of one another like a giant book. Through portals between these four worlds ran a current of magic. And magicians could open doors to travel between these worlds through specific magical hubs until one of them lost control. Black London opened its heart to Vitari, the purest form of magic and lost itself.
The doors between the worlds were closed leaving White London, the closest to Black London, to act as a shield. Red London thrives off the magic radiated from White London. Grey London, the furthest from the source, has all but forgotten about magic.
However there are forces who wish the portals between the worlds to return. It’s up to Kell and an unlikely ally to stop that from happening.
As a concept, magic isn’t an easy thing to work into a fantasy novel. Sometimes it can be too invasive or other times it can be made to seem all too commonplace.
It’s a balance that a Darker Shade of Magic attempts to create, but it’s characters see to it that it’s never found, which isn’t that bad of a thing.
As a protagonist, Kell is built up rather slowly. We learn he is feared in Red London, but only because of his connection to the royal family. He is a prince, but not by choice. Kell is owned by the king and queen of his world, but they treat him as if he was their own. It’s softened him — to a degree — and also makes him act out.
Able to travel between worlds, Kell ferries messages between the royal families of White, Red, and Grey Londons. Along the way, he also picks up trinkets and brings them home. Sometimes they’re music boxes, other times they’re charms or magic talismans, but they’re all high treason in Red London.
It’s a consequence that Rhy, the heir to Red London’s throne and his brothers, is all too eager to remind Kell of with a fist.
The Antari; however, still rebels.
We spend the majority of the first part of the book building Kell up to be someone who has a magnificent power, a cold exterior, the responsibilities of a prince, and all of the follies of a teenager.
And when a magic stone is thrust into his hand and a pickpocket from Grey London steals it from him, we see Kell unravel and the true protagonist of the book picks him up.
Dahlia Bard is a thief, a pickpocket, a scoundrel, a wastrel, and an aspiring privateer. She’s also had a run of bad luck with her last hideout going up in flames stealing away everything she owns other than a pistol, a knife, and a map.
It’s in that moment where she watches the hideout burn that we realize that Lila has nothing to live for. She’s forced to go back to the only place that she could ever consider home and concocts a plan to escape. After a night of pick pocketing strangers, she returns to her room to find a tall, dark, thin stranger in her room.
He says his name is Kell and that she’s stolen something from him. And resting in her pocket is a black stone, a source of magic. Kell’s also bleeding and as he reaches for the stone he collapses leaving Lila with a strange, dark problem in her room. She decides to tie him up and question him later, but also tend to his wounds.
It’s at this point she finds Kell’s magic coat. Made up of several coats all magically interwoven into one, this strange garment is her introduction into the strange man’s world of magic.
A tense conversation later, she’s slashing a knife through the air as a plank of wood coils around her arm.
It’s like magic. It’s like nothing she’s ever seen before. Seconds later the mysterious boy leaves her room. Lila goes back onto the street now brimming with energy, with hope. Magic is literally in the air, but she’s not looking for romance. She’s looking for adventure, a way to escape her grey world, and yet danger is on the way.
Even though we only get a little glimpse of Lila during the first parts of the book, she’s a way more intriguing character than Kell.
She’s lived on the street her entire life and has to kill in order to survive. It’s made her into a conflicted character looking to escape her life in Grey London, but there never seemed to be a way out. Kell represents the unknown and his magic abilities are the catalyst for huge changes in her life.
As much as the book is about Kell’s journey to returning the stone to its place of origin, we learn so much more about Dahlia’s latent abilities. There’s a magic within her that allows her to survive trials and tribulations that would otherwise kill someone without magical powers.
After an encounter with another Antari named Holland, Lila decides to take the lead and use the powerful, black stone to help Kell get rid of the damn thing. She also saves Kell’s life on more than one occasion, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Neither is powerful enough to complete this quest and they begin to realize the potential they possess through cooperation.
So we have good magic, bad magic, and no magic forced into the same room, which creates a kind of balance between the citizens who inhabit A Darker Shade of Magic‘s world.
While it’s not my policy to ignore certain parts of a book, I couldn’t help gloss over Kell’s part and reread Lila’s. She’s a devilish character, but also a strong female lead for the book.
Being from Grey London, she’s had to live most of her life without magic and has quite the skill with a knife.
However, she’s not just a cutthroat.
What I really enjoy about her character is her sense of adventure. She travels to the ends of the Earth on what seems like a lark, but she goes on a journey of discovery.
It’s one that’s facilitated by Kell’s magic, but she grows on her own. She’s independent of his influence through the latter half of the book and has to save him from the grasp of the forces of evil. We learn that — much like Kell — her cool exterior does have a few cracks, but beneath those — unlike Kell — is someone much stronger.
What I hate about the book is Kell’s perspective continually overriding her strength as he believes it’s feigned. What I like about the book is how eventually Kell stops thinking that way when he realizes that Lila is, in fact, a badass.
She holds her own in White London, which Kell says is the most dangerous of all three worlds. She also manages to kill quite a few people throughout the story while not being overcome by the desperation of their mission or the influence of the black stone.
And near to the end of the book, we’re also given a small insight into her character. Mind that this might be a small spoiler and perhaps I’m reading into it the wrong way, but she’s missing an eye.
Her mother and father are dead, she’s able to travel between worlds, and there’s dormant magic within her veins, according to a character in the latter half of the book. Could she be a long lost Antari? It certainly would explain her instinctual knowledge of magic; however, there’s a decent chance that this is all just speculation.
There’s also the matter of people not being able to travel between the world. How could Lila have escaped Grey London if she wasn’t an Antari deep down?
And probably the best part of the book is that it leaves you on a cliffhanger as if to say that the adventure has just begun. And it’s a cliffhanger that doesn’t involve Kell.
This is the first of V.E. Schwab’s books I’ve read. It starts out a little slow, but it gradually picks up the pace. I think the book could have been a little shorter in places focusing more on Lila rather than Kell.
There’s also the matter of Rhy’s relationship with Kell, which is never fully developed. Near to the end of the book, the brothers find themselves closer than ever and you’ve got to wonder how this new bond will change things between them.
We know that magic seeps into the veins, so maybe Rhy is in for a rocky new life.
The book is also a little back heavy with most of the action taking place in the last 40 pages of the book. While it makes for a non-stop read at the end, perhaps some of the action could have been spread out a little more.
Still, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how V.E. Schwab develops this colourful world of magic.