Victoria Schwab has been writing YA for a while but it was last year, when her novel Vicious came out, that I got really interested. Then, before I could find the time to squeeze Vicious into my reading, everybody exploded with love for her latest book – and I mean, look at that cover. I keep stroking it and looking at the pretty maps.
Published by: Tor, 2015
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: A Darker Shade of Magic #1
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes—as such, he can choose where he lands. There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there’s Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne—a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London…but no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see—a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—and that is proving trickier than they hoped.
Kell is a magical errand boy between worlds, delivering letters between the kings and queens of Grey, Red, and White London. So what if he picks up a little something on the side occasionally? Collecting trinkets from different worlds or selling them to aspiring magicians can’t do much harm, can it? When Kell acquires something he decidedly shouldn’t have, things go batshit crazy and he has to use all his wits and powers to fix his mistake and save all Londons and probably the rest of the world, too.
I love the idea of parallel Londons, even though I’m not sure how I feel about being stuck in the grey version of the world. Both the colors as well as the amount of magic is used very effectively. The three (or rather: four) Londons feel like very organic, living cities with the most powerful magic closer to black London and the least magic in the London furthest away. The color codes work beautifully but I must add how well V.E. Schwab used smells to distinguish each London from its neighbours. Red London is flowers, White London is ash and steel, Grey London is smoke. Small details like this took the world-building up a notch or two.
World-building is also the aspect I had the most gripes with. A lot of it is done through dialogue, with Kell explaining things to Lila, or in descriptive info-dumps. This isn’t very elegant but at least it’s consistent with the world and characters. After all, Lila doesn’t know anything about parallel worlds and actually needs Kell to explain it to her. This happened mostly at the beginning of the book, to set up the worlds. Only established, the parallel Londons don’t really get the benefit of much description anymore. It would have been nice to learn about the surroundings while Lila and Kell were actually there.
“You don’t know anything about these worlds,” he said, but the fight was bleeding out of his voice.
“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”
Now, let’s talk about the heart and soul of this story: the characters.
Other than Kell, there is only one more magician powerful enough to travel between worlds – Holland. Although he isn’t a main character, he is one of the most fascinating people in this story and I honestly can’t get enough of him.
Delilah “Lila” Bard is adorable! She is a stubborn, ambitious, clever thief from Grey London, who can’t quite hide that she also happens to be a good person. When she and Kell collide, wonderful bickering and fighting ensues. They banter, they fight, they battle each other, they save each others lives, and then they fight some more. Their relationship pushed all my buttons, especially as they learn to trust each other more toward the end of the book. One thing I found rather jarring was the “mystery” surrounding Lila. If my suspicions are correct, then the plot twist is painfully obvious. But for now, I can still hope that the author is trying to trick me into thinking I know things about Lila when I really don’t.
Kell himself is an intriguing person. He has all the power but is rather shy and prefers to remain in the background. He grew up like a prince but can never know if it’s because his adopted parents – the king and queen – really love him or because they own him. His relationship to his brother Rhy is clearly real and important, but could have used more groundwork. We are told, rather than shown, how much they care about each other, how they really love each other like family. Only in the last third of the book does this brotherly love get to shine.
The fast-paced plot makes it impossible to put the book down. If it weren’t for the day job, I would have read this in one sitting – and I recommend to anyone starting this book to do it on a weekend. The ending was well-rounded, so you can read this as a standalone, but there was one thing Kell and Lila had to do (which they do almost as a side-note) that I’m sure will have repercussions in the next book. Oh boy, how I look forward to the trouble they’ll get into…
So all things considered, the minor flaws can be forgiven because this book also happens to tell a damn good story, full of action and surprises and smart people doing clever things to save the world. Now that the set-up is out of the way, I only have to wait a year (almost) until I can return to Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Holland – and see what events they have set in motion unknowingly. Let there be bickering, flirting, magic, and mayhem. I cannot wait!
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent
A Darker Shade of Magic series:
- A Darker Shade of Magic
- A Gathering of Shadows