“”Aren’t you afraid of dying?” he asked Lila now.
She looked at him as if it were a strange question. And then she shook her head. “Death comes for everyone,” she said simply. “I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.””
Yay! A good one! A Darker Shade of Magic was a magnificent, well-crafted fantasy adventure with great world-building, pacing, and characters.
I loved this book! From the very first page, I was drawn into Kell’s story and his adventures throughout the various Londons. Usually, if I am hooked from the start, then I am going to love the whole thing, and this book did not disappoint! What really stood out to me was the sheer confidence of this story. The premise was well-founded, the characters were solid, and the world-crafting was strong. Schwab wasted no time trying to convince the readers of her vision first. She simply told us how things were in her world and that was that. The explanation was seamless, too, with no clunky info-dump roadblock.
This is technically an adult fantasy novel, but there are bits of everything in it and lovers of all genres can find something to adore here. It is completely unique, with original characters, ideas, and plot points. It does not get caught up in any of the traps normally found in a fantastical, royal political, boy-meets-girl to save the world kind of book – and that is amazing to me. Schwab did not worry about any of our expectations going in, did not cater to the demands of the genre, and wrote a sensational story exactly as she saw it. It is brilliant!
The worldbuilding is, for me, the strongest aspect of the novel, because it is so clever and different! The world(s) are centered around this concept of multiple Londons all existing at once. There is Grey London, which is the London of our world and it has no magic (boo!), exciting Red London, which is where the main character Kell lives, ruthless White London, and ruined Black London. There is a brief history of the world given in the beginning of the book, about how the worlds used to have doors open between them for the people to travel, until Black London let the magic take over and forced the other worlds to seal the doors – leaving Black London in ruin. Now, only the Antari can travel between the sealed doors. And there are only two of them left in the worlds. Thus, the intricate, complex plot spanning across all 4 Londons, is set into motion.
Each London is described in a particular way, with lush details and near-tangible atmospheres. Our own Grey London is drab and a little hard, the lives of the royals completely removed from those of the commoners. It is a place where no one believes in the magic of the past and everyone is just looking to survive. Worse so, is White London, a land so harsh and dangerous that screams in the night and blood on the streets is normal for those living there. Ruled by ruthless sibling-despots, White London is a dying world full of hopeless people. Which is the complete opposite of Kell’s Red London. This was the most exciting, stimulating, and beautiful of the settings. It is richly detailed and contrasts nicely with both Grey London, and White London. Colors are bright and alive. The royal family is beloved and the people are happy. And, best of all, magic is teeming through the whole word. It is truly enchanting. Schwab did a fantastic job capturing the tone of each world perfectly and effortlessly gave life to her vision.
The rest of this fabulous novel is carried by the strong characters that we meet. Schwab has a skill with creating complex, well-rounded, and relatable characters that do not feel forced or overdone. Her main protagonist Kell the Antari, is a great character. He is strong in magic but not really in physical combat. He is uncomfortable with the awe of the people and the love of his royal family. He is a little awkward and yet formidable, when it comes to dealing with the people in pubs and smuggling illegal goods back to his London. Why he does this? He doesn’t know; he just loves it. Kell reminded me a little of Arthur Weasley with his excitement for and fascination with non-magical things. I also imagined him looking a bit like Newt Scamander, so I was definitely getting some Harry Potter vibes throughout the book! Which, of course, just added to my enjoyment.
About a third of the way through the novel, Kell meets Delilah Bard in Grey London and accidentally entangles her in his magical mess. Lila is an awesome character. She is unapologetic, blunt, clever, logical, (secretly) kind, and extremely brave. She was a pickpocket out of necessity, but always dreamed of being a pirate captain of her own ship. She is amazing! Honestly, she is like the coolest person. And, she becomes a huge ally and friend to Kell. I loved their dynamic together, how Kell was equal parts frightened of her and enamored with her. And how Lila was, of course, just in it for the adventure (and wound up saving Kell’s ass a few times). They built a solid friendship/partnership together, so I have no doubts that they will pair up again in the next two books. Miraculously, there really were no cliche moments between them, nothing obviously setting them up to fall in love, which I thought was really refreshing. There was not one love-struck monologue from either character taking up precious survival time! And really, the more intimate relationship we witnessed, was between Kell and his adopted brother, the prince Rhy.
Aside from the fact that I accidentally read his name as Rhys every time (damn you Sarah J. Maas!), I loved Rhy as a character! He had a bit less page time, but he influenced the outcome of the whole story. He was kind and charming, a little insecure with his magic, loved by his people, a shameless (and successful) flirt, and a loyal brother to Kell. Rhy was truly a good person, and a flawed, faceted character. All of the characters were equally well-drawn, so I am definitely impressed with Schwab’s writing and craftsmanship! Even the side characters, the king and queen, Barron, Holland, and the creepy twins maintained a fleshed-out, impactful presence throughout the novel.
Overall, A Darker Shade of Magic is a wild, intense, magical adventure that I know you are sure to love! It has a fantastic ensemble of characters, grit, humor, dangerous magic, stunning worlds, and true heart. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel!
What about you, Cake?