A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, magic, parallel dimensions, how do I get a coat of many colors?
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Summary: Kell is a blood magician and ambassador with the power to travel between Londons. There’s the magic-less Grey London, the flourishing Red London, war torn White London and the long lost Black London. The doors between the Londons were sealed off centuries ago to protect the worlds from a magic plague, but Kell may be forced to return to forbidden Black London when he gets pulled into a nefarious plot (are there any other kinds?) involving a dangerous artifact from the lost city. With the help of a cross-dressing ally and thief named Lila, Kell must travel through the Londons to return the artifact, or risk destroying all the worlds.
Victoria Schwab (also known as V.E. Schwab when she’s not writing young adult or middle grade books) has done it again with A Darker Shade of Magic, her novel about multiple Londons, magic, dimension hopping magicians with multiple-sided coats and cross-dressing wannabe pirates.
Protagonist Kell is a blood magician and one of only two people in the universes who can now travel between doors, acting as an ambassador between the three Londons: Red, Grey and White. There was once a fourth London, known as Black London, but more on that later.
Kell serves Red London, and for traveling throughout these parallel dimensions, he is armed with a coat of many sides to blend in or stand out from the crowds of the various Londons depending on his needs.
Red London is the strongest London, where magic abounds and everything smells like freshly cut flowers — but only because the citizens believe that magic should be used cautiously and reverently. Kell dubs his London Red London due to the hue of red that falls over the city, as well as the fact that red is the color of royalty.
Our London, Grey London, has little magic left in 1819 when ADSOM begins. Ruled by the mad King George III, the entire city smells of smoke and its citizens no longer remember magic, although the heirs to the crown know the secrets of travelers like Kell. You know how the Prime Ministers knows about the existence of wizards in Harry Potter but all other Muggles don’t? It’s sort of like that.
The doors were once open between all the Londons so everyone could travel freely, but after the citizens of Black London abused their magic — causing a plague which threatened to ravage the other Londons — Red London chose to close their doors, leaving White London torn between the now-sealed Red London and the damaged Black London. After failing to fight the plague, White London was forced to close their own doors, with the city being destroyed from within while trying to fight off the plague. Grey London forgot about magic altogether.
As a result, White London is a washed and pale place which smells like blood and is in constant turmoil. Its citizens fiend for magic like addicts, going so far as to drink the blood of others to gain their power. The monarchy is perpetually shifting and being overthrown by those who wield the most magic. The current rulers are the malicious Dane twins, Astrid and Athos, who enjoy binding and controlling others with runes, a practice which is illegal in Red London. Their ambassador is Holland (that other traveler I mentioned) who like most of White London believes you must control magic or it will control you.
Even though all the Londons are called London, as Kell explains, all the cities look different and the countries that surround them are not the same, so how and why they share the same name is a mystery. The only constant? They all have a river as a source of power running through them and they all feature a pub in the exact same spot — Scorched Bone in White, Stone’s Throw in Grey and Setting Sun in Red.
As with my favorite heroes, Kell doesn’t know much about his parentage thanks to some missing memories. Raised by the royal family from a young age after learning he is Antari (a blood magician marked by one black eye), Kell is named after a knife he carries bearing the initials KL. Kay-Ell. Kell.
To fill in a missing part of himself, Kell illegally smuggles items from Grey and White London into Red London and visa-verse, a practice which the affable and flamboyant Prince Rhy is worried will get Kell into trouble. Which is exactly what happens on a royal trip to White London when he inadvertently smuggles out a dangerous magical stone originating from Black London.
Enter our second protagonist, Lila Bard, a tough-as-nails, cross-dressing thief who one day dreams of being the captain of her own pirate ship. Spoilers: she’s a fucking bad ass.
Together, they must destroy
the One Ring the stone by tossing it into the fires of Mount Doom the now-sealed Black London. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
- Schwab’s world building is superb
- Characters are intriguing and three-dimensional (props especially for main characters Kell and Lila and secondary characters Prince Rhy and Barron)
- Kell has a fucking multi-sided coat which had me sucked in from page one
- Multi. Sided. Coat.
- The second book won’t be out until 2016, which is the real travesty here
- “Grey for the magic-less city. Red, for the healthy empire. White, for the starving world.”
- “The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”
- “‘I’m not going to die,’ she said. ‘Not till I’ve seen it.’ ‘Seen what?’ Her smile widened. ‘Everything.'”
- “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
- “Battles may be fought from the outside in, but wars are won from the inside out.”
- “Magic bent the world. Pulled it into shape. There were fixed points. Most of the time those points were places. But sometimes, rarely, they were people.”
- “The world was hers. The worlds were hers.”
- 18,000 other quotes that I probably missed because I was so engrossed in the story.
Despite only being on the scene for a short time since the release of her young adult novel The Near Witch in 2011, Schwab has managed to release eight full length novels and is currently pursing a masters degree. How is this possible? Some theories seem to hint that she’s made a deal with a crossroads demon.