At a glance A Darker Shade of Magic treads familiar urban fantasy ground. The setting is a series of alternate Londons, a popular choice for young adult novels. The era is the early 1800s, Georgian times. The main characters are a magician, a thief and a prince. And, of course, there is magic.
With these somewhat formulaic ingredients, V.E Schwab manages to create a fast paced story, well drawn characters and a thoroughly engaging world. Kell is a magician, an Antari, one of a dwindling number of people with the ability to pass between Londons. Belonging to the royal family of the magic-rich and reasonably peaceful Red London, Kell delivers royal correspondence between his own world, the dangerous White London and our own magic-less Grey London. He also smuggles trinkets. It a hobby that results in danger, treason and more magic, throwing Kell into the path of Delilah (Lila) Bard, a pickpocket from Grey London with a belt full of weapons and daydreams of adventure.
Schwab builds vivid images from the nicknames Kell gives each London, the colours echoing not only the colour schemes of the cities but also their atmospheres and emotional resonances. It is a clever and simple cross-section of symbolism and imagery. Likewise, Schwab’s description of the characters slips naturally into the story, deftly avoiding the staged introductions and awkward exposition that litters many YA fantasy books.
There are disadvantages and benefits to A Darker Shade of Magic’s tight focus on its central characters. Schwab’s writing is easy to read and the worlds she has created are interesting, and so there is a natural curiosity about the structure of each alternate Earth that goes unsatisfied. Even the promise of Black London is never fulfilled. It also leaves some holes in the characterisation of minor roles; the king and queen of Red London, for instance. Yet by staying close to Kell and Lila, Schwab ensures that there is never a dull moment or unnecessary exposition, letting the narrative rollick along at a quick and enjoyable pace. With Kell’s back-story still unexplained, and the rest of the worlds still a mystery, perhaps Schwab is leaving herself room for a sequel.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a solid novel set on familiar foundations; a quick and pleasant dip out of reality and into adventure.
A Darker Shade of Magic is available on the 24th of February from Macmillian-Tor/Forge.