We’re excited to share a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who will be reviewing books by this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of A Darker Shade of Magic!
V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of four parallel Londons, each linked and locked by magic, each with its own history and relationship with magic. Within each of those worlds, there are only two people—Kell and Holland—who can walk across the worlds. Only two people who can see these other worlds and report back and forth. Or, at least, we think there’s only two who can travel between them.
Throughout the book, Schwab plays with the idea of distorted reflections. The various Londons are all distorted reflections of each other: each are very different, but each are wed together by peculiar bones, similarities of names and fixtures of space. The two travelers who can walk between these Londons are also distorted reflections of each other. Both are brilliant, secretive, complicated men bound to the rulers of their London. Both live lives where they are valuable tools as much as they are independent people. But Kell, from Red London, is young and brooding and nostalgic for a life he’d wish he’d lived. And Holland, from White London, is older, and ruthlessly, viciously pragmatic in pursuit of his goals.
Everything about A Darker Shade of Magic is contrasted sharply with Grey London—our London—a London which exists without magic. Schwab’s masterful and tragic opening scene sets up the dynamic between Grey London and the other Londons in a way that beautifully sets the stage for everything to follow. Kell visits Grey London with news. On his way out, as an act of mercy, or pity, or both, he visits Mad King George. It’s clear from their interaction that they have known each other for years, and that the knowledge of other Londons and magic has thrown King George’s life completely off-kilter. It’s also clear that, while Kell knows this, and knows that he is part of this, that he is reckless with it. This is a tale of obsession and sacrifice, and all of that is spelled out in those opening interactions Kell has.
Grey London also gives us the heart of the book: Lila Bard, hungry thief and sharp-tongued street rat who dresses in men’s clothes and dreams of being a pirate. Kell and Holland are interesting characters, but Lila was what I was reading for. She is smart, and she is alone, and she can smell danger on the breeze, but she has absolutely no safety net. She is a girl with hidden talents just breaking through caught in a mess not of her making, drawing on strengths she did not know she had. She is a wonderful and lively character. When her life and Kell’s grow tangled, they cut a blood-soaked trail from one London to the next, plagued by an artifact they only half understand, while hunted by the sadistic rulers of White London—a London hungry for power and dominance.
V. E. Schwab has two enormous strengths going for her in this book: first, she can write; second, she can fascinate. She constructs effortlessly emotional sentences. For example, when she writes that Lila “would rather steal a thing outright than be indebted to kindness,” I laughed, but my heart broke in the same moment. And she is just as good with worldbuilding: “Kell—inspired by the lost city known to all as Black London—had given each remaining capital a color. Grey for the magicless city. Red, for the healthy empire. White, for the starving world.” She has a way of quickly, efficiently punctuating her prose with these asides that cut you to ribbons and emotionally fill in the gaps and leave you craving more.
I loved this book. It wasn’t perfect—the plot took too long to fall into place, which meant the pacing was uneven, but the story and the world was fascinating enough that I kept going anyway. I wanted to know more about the histories and cultures of each of the other three Londons. Why do they have different languages? Why is the magic distributed differently across them? What, exactly, happened in Black London?
A Darker Shade of Magic is great fun. It’s exciting and adventurous, with a rich and evocative world. Plus Lila Bard, the fast-talking pants-wearing pickpocket is my new book crush for the foreseeable future.
B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.