Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A wealth of magic-focused fantasy novels over the decades – from The Hobbit to Harry Potter, from Mistborn to The Rage of Dragons – view the world though the lens of the everyman stand-in. A Darker Shade of Magic explores magic from the perspective of magicians, with all of its joys, responsibilities, and temptations. Fairly early, we see an interesting scene where one such everyman approaches Kell, our protagonist, and practically demands to be taught magic. How many times have we seen this scene through the perspective of the petitioner? We know the asker’s needs and goals. We sympathize with them. The magician often comes across as mysterious and arrogant for (initially) denying the apparently reasonable request.

In Darker Shade, we know the dangers of magic. We see the request for what it is: reckless and foolhardy. We recognize the mage’s brusque attitude for the kindness that it is. Throughout, the cost and danger of power is a recurring theme. Let’s talk about it.

The Basics:

Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genre: High Fantasy, Portal Fantasy, Mystery, Action, Romance
Published: Tor, 2015

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Kell is an Antari – magic is in his blood. He serves the kingdom of Red London as a court mage. It may sound glamorous, but he is bored with his role as a glorified messenger, carrying letters between the alternate dimensions of Red, White, and Gray London (where we live). Never to Black London, which was consumed by evil magic ages ago. What harm is there if Kell occasionally smuggles artifacts between worlds for a little spending money? It’s nearly a matter of routine when mysterious strangers ask him to smuggle a black stone humming with magic between worlds.

Surprise! The stone is a source of magic so terrible it cannot fall into the wrong hands. With the help of Delilah Bard – a fast-talking thief from Gray (nonmagical) London – Kell braves thieves, rival magicians, and the elemental forces of darkness to protect all of the worlds from the stone’s corruptive influence.

Detail of Kell fan art by Tara Tjah

Why This Book Is For You:

The real strength of this text, in my opinion, lies in the well-rounded characters and the complicated relationships between them. Kell is, at times, an anti-hero, and his choices and motivations are always complex. His relationships with Delilah, a tough dreamer of a thief, and the foppish prince with a heart of gold Rhys are nuanced and charming. Their interactions are written with deft wit.

The worldbuilding is fun, smooth, and unique. The background of and connection between the different parallel Londons is seamlessly integrated into the narrative in an engaging and impactful way.

If you like swashbuckling magical adventures with clever characters written in lyrical prose, you will enjoy A Darker Shade of Magic.

Where Can You Find More?

We reviewed another book by the same author in this space not so long ago. If A Darker Shade interests you, check out The Invisible Life of Addie Larue. Her publisher has a nifty list of her titles here.

Happy reading, folks.

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