BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Delilah Bard, a cutpurse from our world, gets entangled in the multiple alternate Londons accessed by Kell, one of the few magicians who can travel between worlds.
PROS: Two strong and interesting protagonists matched up well against antagonists; fascinating worldbuilding for the three Londons.
CONS: Novel takes a little while to build up momentum; Lila feels like the real protagonist of the series, but novels takes its time to bring us to her.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting marriage of character study and worldbuilding.
Multiple Londons. A pair of magicians, apart from their kind, who can travel between various forms of London in different world. A thief who seeks to change her destiny by means fair or foul. A foul and corrupt magical artifact which is an existential threat to the well being of any world in which it is found. All this and more can be found in V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.
In the world of A Darker Shade of Magic, there are, or were, four worlds, four Londons: Grey London, the world without magic; Black London, the lost London that magic consumed and destroyed; and in between lies Red London, the London of a thriving empire, and White London, which is a London clinging and clawing to remain viable and alive, and also a cruel and vicious London on the edge.
The core of the novel rests on the two main characters of Kell and Lila. Kell is one of possibly only two magicians still living who can travel between the three remaining Londons, while Lila is a crossdressing thief and guttersnipe with big dreams and plans. Fate, destiny and trouble in the form of a eldritch piece of that lost London throw these two contrasting figures together.
The novel is packed to the gills with interesting characters and world details beyond our two protagonists, and moves us away from the Grey London that really is, to all intents and purposes, our own early 19th century London, in favor of having the characters spend time in Red London and White London. It is here that the author’s imagination goes into full overdrive in painting a picture of these two alternate Londons and worlds. The paucity of Grey London compared to the both of them is evident and it is no wonder that Lila feels no hesitation in joining Kell in traveling worlds and leaving Grey London. In a sense, her story is a portal fantasy, traveling from Mundania for much more magic-infused realms. Lila’s visit to Red London, in particular, has all the wonder and danger of a mortal treading into faerie. The strong confidence that Kell feels in traveling the worlds is in contrast to Lila’s wonder, and while we see the Londons from both eyes, Lila’s voice and Kell’s voice in experiencing those worlds provide very different yet equally interesting views.
While Red London is the most detailed of the Londons, and more time is spent there, I was taken with the secondary characters that Kell and Lila meet. For example, the two monarchs of White London, the sadistic Athos and Astrid Dane, were real standouts. I kept imagining Astrid in the form of a pale and evil looking Tilda Swinton, beautiful, and if anything, crueler and more dangerous than her brother Athos. Kell’s relations with his adoptive brother, Prince Rhy (and the rest of Rhy’s family), with his Antari rival Holland, and the other secondary characters keep the novel humming. Lila’s interactions with them are even more pointed and intriguing.
I have very little to say against the novel, but one thing did irritate me. Lila feels like the real main character to me, but the novel is more more strongly focused on Kell instead. It’s a creative tension between expectations and the page that isn’t a major problem but was there for me. The novel gains momentum, however, when Lila finally appears and whenever she appears on the page. Her dynamic with Kell is amazingly good and the novel truly sings when they meet and travel together in the story. I would also alert readers that the novel, although not an epic fantasy in the conventional sense, uses its conventions in presenting a large amount of worldbuilding up front, which slows down the plot somewhat.
The Black London plot, to me, felt a bit like the magical version of the nanotech infested Earth in Ian McDonald’s Everness series. Like Schwab’s Black London, it has been cut off out of fear of the other Earths (or in this book, Londons) infecting the other worlds, and there are a few other parallels that I noticed with Everness, but to reveal those might give too much away.
A Darker Shade of Magic may not be a novel of “Magical London” in the Paul Cornell, John Lambshead or Emma Newman sense of the world. However, it is a novel with fascinating, well developed characters and well excellent worldbuilding that I ate up with a spoon. There is at least one sequel promised, and I strongly look forward to reading it.