4.9 stars out of 5
(I try to save 5 star ratings for life-changers like Harry Potter, but this is really close!)
Pirates and magic and London(s)… this book has everything.
A Darker Shade of Magic is outstanding from page one. Kell, our mysterious hero, is a more confident Newt Schemander-type (I’m actually picturing Eddie Redmayne). He’s one of only two Antari left in the world. Antari are blood magicians who can, by use of said blood, travel between the four parallel worlds at the point where they touch: London. Each world, and thus each London, is defined by its relationship with magic. Red London, where Kell hails from, has magic aplenty. Grey London is most like our real world, circa vaguely Victorian times. Grey once had magic, but it’s gone – dismissed and turned to legend. White London is zombie magic land: there is a small amount, desperately hunted, scavenged, stolen, and violently wielded. Then there’s Black London, eaten alive by the power of magic. It was sealed off forever, like an amputated limb, to keep the disease from spreading.
Kell’s relationship to thriving Red London is complicated. He belongs to the royal family, both as surrogate son and actually as a possession, since his Antari powers are allowed to be used only in their service. The people love and fear him by turns. He fears White London, where the sadistic ruling Dane twins would love to capture his powerful magic. Kell feels a strange tie to Gray London, bleak and magic-less, a place as close to normal as he can find.
And find, he does. Enter Delilah Bard, one of the most delightful YA heroines I’ve read. She is the requisite street-wise, smart-mouthed, urchin alumnus with a heart of gold(-ish). But something about Lila is more than the brassy, bossy female trope. Schwab writes her as remarkably genuine. As the story peels layers from Lila, she reads like a real person figuring herself out.
Lila and Kell come together against a White London plot to steal Red London’s magic. The action is intense, the pace dizzying, and the settings! Each London is rendered in glorious detail and stark contrast to its fraternal twins.
The end of A Darker Shade of Magic is so satisfying, it could stand alone as a novel. But the best part is knowing there are two more books to read!
I often don’t understand how books are categorized. A Darker Shade of Magic is considered sci-fi, not young adult, though it shoots both genres through the heart. And it’s more fantasy than sci-fi, two genres always lumped together inelegantly. For presumably the same reason, V.E. Schwab writes under that name for sci-fi, and under Victoria Shawn for young adult titles. I pity a boy who won’t read a book because it’s by a female author! Regardless of where it’s found, find this book.