‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab
I hardly know where to begin with V.E. Schwab’s fantastic A Darker Shade of Magic. The book is a delightful mix of the historical and magical, telling the story of three parallel Londons that exist on top of each other, like sheets of paper, and the few magicians who are able to travel between them.
With this logline, A Darker Shade was actually far different than I expected. I went into the book thinking it would feature three different historic Londons and magicians who traveled through time between them. I suspect my assumptions stemmed somehow from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a book with a somewhat similar premise.
Instead, A Darker Shade features one historic London (set during the Regency in the early 19th century) and two entirely magical places that share the name of London, but nothing else. While not what I expected, this bit of inventiveness allowed the book to veer tidily from the historical into the realm of the fantastical to good effect.
Schwab creates characters and worlds with remarkable ease, humor, and empathy, drawing the reader in on every level. She delicately balances between mysterious, unexplained histories and magics and the inevitable full reveal, giving just enough information to be able to move forward without being bogged down with exposition.
She also, rather admirably, does not allow one of her main characters (a human woman from the non-magical, 19th-century London) to become a narrative crutch by having everything neatly explained to readers through the character’s own lack of knowledge. Both the character and reader are treated with enough respect to assume they’ll pick things up quickly enough on their own. (Both do.)
(And sidebar: this character, named Lila Bard, is pretty much everything I ever wanted from a female fantasy character. She’s a smart dreamer, handy with weapons, game for anything, and no one’s romantic plaything. She’s allowed to be an actual human being, in other words, instead of either a machismo vision of female warriordom or some swoony princess. A+ to A Darker Shade just for Lila Bard alone.)
The incredibly rich mythology and history of the Londons is a further blessing to A Darker Shade — like Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician, A Darker Shade‘s universe arrives fully formed with a deep back story and history to attend its present. (Unlike The Paper Magician, A Darker Shade is all ready to go at the first entry, not allowing its “first book in a series” status to undermine it being a good read and well-crafted story in its own right.)
I saved A Darker Shade of Magic as a treat for myself to read after a particularly big and exhausting event at work and it did not disappoint in the least. And what a delight to discover that it is merely the first in a series! My only regret is that this book was just released, so we’ll have to wait some time before the next one! Alas!
(And major cover props for this one! You can read about the design process of getting such a wonderful-looking thing here.)