Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

Tue, 2017/04/25

Magic, multiple universes, items with special abilities, all a few common aspects of many fantasy stories we have come to know, utilized in one way or the other, with variations in every story they appear in. "A Darker Shade of Magic" by V. E. Schwab presents a story that employs typical fantasy fare with some interesting variations, alongside a compelling cast of characters with strong personalities. In an unexpected turn of events, I will be reviewing a book in this issue.

The plot of “A Darker Shade of Magic” revolves around Kell Maresh, a magician with the power of blood magic known as an Antari, a coat that becomes many other coats, and a past unknown even to himself. Among other abilities, his blood magic grants him the ability to travel between each of the three different versions of London, all with starkly different backdrops and ways of life. As per Kell and others like him, there exists Red London, his home and a highly magic-reliant place; Grey London, the home of Delilah Bard (who will be noted later) and a magic-devoid place; and White London, a place starving for life and magic. There also exists a fourth London, titled Black London, which became uninhabitable some time before the beginning of the book. Something that threw me off when first hearing about the book featuring multiple Londons, it felt oddly specific, but as it turns out, each London just happens to also be named London and located in the same exact place more or less, which is a plot device used throughout the series for important locations. With the Londons in mind, Kell’s main job is to deliver letters between each of them in order to keep up correspondence. In his travels, Kell often smuggles various items that he happens upon, which eventually leads to what soon becomes the crux of the book, when Kell smuggles a mysterious magical stone and things go awry, to say the least. There is, of course, much more to the story, but that’s for you to read and me not to spoil for you.

Schwab’s style is detail-oriented and often clever, but with a few pitfalls here and there. For example, when describing a scene, there were times where I felt that a lot of detail was being given, but it wasn’t strong enough to provide the full image in my head. Now, books are of course text-based, so a lot is left up to your imagination, but the times where I felt unsure were most often when a characters' features or the scenery were being described. At times, I also felt as if each chapter began rather abruptly, mostly due to lines like “Kell wore a peculiar coat,” which sound as if they’re trying too hard to indicate a new chapter as opposed to just flowing into a new section. Structural, and functional complaints aside, clever is an understatement for Schwab’s writing, which often employs small asides and anecdotal statements that make the reading experience both more interesting and engaging, as seen in statements like “built like a brick wall--if a brick wall grew a beard.” On a similar note, the characters in this book, and even more so in its sequels, have no shortage of witty banter between each other, which ended up one of the major reasons I read on. To be honest, you could give me a story wherein the only basis is characters talking to each other and having witty conversations, with maybe a bit of plot just to give some rationalization to whatever actions they may commit in addition. This is especially evident in Kell’s interactions with Delilah Bard, a thief he encounters while escaping a major threat, which leads me to the plot.

“A Darker Shade of Magic” does a decent job of balancing character interactions and plot development, giving them a mostly symbiotic relationship. That said, there isn’t anything particularly profound going on with the plot, which is something to think about if you were expecting a deep book that begs you to question your existence (it’s technically a Young Adult (YA) novel). To the book’s credit, however, it puts enough little twists on the way things like magic work that make for interesting lore and a fun, if not often predictable storyline, which leads me to my next point. This book is full of known tropes, which is fine, but lead me to very often predict exactly how the story would go, such as some events involving mind-control coming up later in the book that someone could have seen coming from miles away. On one hand, this was a little disappointing, but on the other hand, it enhanced the experience by playing on things that have become familiar to me based on my experience with other forms of media, including anime and video games. That’s to say, the story certainly isn’t entirely predictable, as there were certain dire events towards the end of the book that came as a surprise to me and had me turning through at speeds surprising even to myself. In addition, although I see it as to the book’s fault, some of the lack of predictability comes in the form of throwing out character names and words from the Arnesian language in the book and eventually introducing and explaining them later on. This is definitely a much more subjective part of my thoughts on the book, as I personally don’t like being given this feeling of almost false mystery. That said, I can still call the story solid on the whole, and many of my issues with the first book were dropped in the sequels.

Considering that most of my fictional media consumption has been mostly visual, I often felt that I would also enjoy this book in a comic format. There is apparently a film being produced for the book, but I would hesitate to add motion to the picture in this case. All said, the overall series is titled “Shades of Magic,” with the second and third sequels titled “A Gathering of Shadows” and “A Conjuring of Light” respectively, which I had trouble not acquiring and reading after finding myself at the end of this book. Take it from the guy who hasn’t read a book for fun in many years; this one is worth a read if you’re looking for a fantasy story with likable (and some very, very hateable) characters and, well, a darker shade of magic than what we’re normally used to.