Novel Recommendation: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

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I’m a sucker for different types of magic systems.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, a game or a novel, if there’s a unique way that the arcane arts are handled, I will be there. That’s one of the main reasons I love Brandon Sanderson’s work so much, besides the fact that he’s an amazing writer. Each of his worlds handles magic differently, leaning more on the hard side of the spectrum than the soft side. It’s quite comic book-esque in a way, especially in a series like Mistborn where characters can access certain abilities based on the metals they can burn once ingested. There are those who may prefer magic to just be, something wizards can simply do without a lot of backstory, and I’m not opposed to that, but there’s an excitement that accompanies a new system of magic that is almost palpable. It’s as though the reader is learning to use magic alongside the main character and who doesn’t want to wield phenomenal, cosmic power?

No one. The answer is no one.

Being that I’m intrigued by all things arcane in the fantasy genre, I was immediately drawn in by the title of this book. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, or Victoria E. Schwab if you know how to use Google. How can you not be excited by a title like that? It claims there is a darker shade of magic, but how many shades of magic are there? Does it have to do with rainbows? Paints? Inks, colours, fabrics? Maybe the system here involves sunlight and shadow? There a too many questions, questions that need answering! So, of course I picked it up, and walked away from my read-through a darker shade of delighted.

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We meet our main protagonist, Kell, as soon as we open the cover; a debonair man wearing a unique coat who is travelling from a place called Red London to the London you and I know. He is traveler, a messenger meant to take correspondence between the three remaining Londons – Red, Grey, and White – and keep the King and Queen of his crimson home informed of their neighbours. Though he does his duty admirably, there is one vice that the young magician cannot give up: the smuggling of baubles from other Londons. It is an outlawed practice in Red and White London, but Grey London is so without magic that Kell sees no harm in taking chess pieces or music boxes back home with him. Now, to bring something back from White London is a different matter, dangerous even. Surely the young Antari – one of the few remaining members of a line that work magic with their very blood – would not be reckless or stupid enough to do something like that? Of course not. At least, not entirely on purpose.

Schwab writes emotion with such clarity that I always understood Kell’s feelings and motivations, and not once did I feel as though anything was overdramatic. It’s not heavy-handed and poured out onto the page through inner monologue after inner monologue, it’s simply a part of the narrative. Kell is passionate, he’s emotional, and he is compelled to do the right thing, no matter how painful. He is my favourite kind of hero and being paired alongside the wannabe-pirate Lila Bard made both of them a pleasure to read.

Lila is a young thief doing her best to survive on the mean-streets of Grey London – our London – going so far as to make a name for herself as a notorious burglar; though no one knows the criminals identity, of course. After a particularly bloody incident with her previous landlord, she later stumbles upon Kell when he is in the middle of figuring out what to do about something he should not have in his possession. The pickpocket is then pulled into Kell’s world, learning that magic is, in fact, real while remaining rather unfazed by it. All she craves is adventure and freedom. By running into the blue and black eyed traveler, she’s found both.

I liked Lila’s personality and attitude. It played against Kell’s so naturally without either character filling a role. One wasn’t the super serious archetype while the other was the wise-cracking jokester. Lila lived a hard life and her actions reflected that, but she did her best to focus on the positive things in life. Kell is introspective, always asking questions, and he stays focused on his responsibilities. Though they may both have their faults, they build a relationship on the foundation of mutual respect and are there for each other, not because one is strong and the other is weak, but because they both need help in order to succeed. Could there be romantic sparks? Maybe, but for this first book they are truly a team, a pair of equals fighting the same cause, and that is more than enough for me.

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What was surprising to me was that the actual magic done in the book is rather typical wizarding fair. Kell and his enemies make walls, turn invisible, charm people, and perform a myriad of other well-known “spells” that your average fantasy nerd is pretty used to. The intriguing aspect about how magic works in this setting is exactly that, the how. Though it seems many in White and Red London are able to use magic, it was because of Kell’s Antari bloodline that he can travel between worlds and draw upon power in his own blood. There is a point where Kell is battling the only other known Antari, Holland, and the White London magician berates Kell because he is asking the magic do to what he wants, not taking control and making it work for him. We see here that there are, at the very least, two philosophy’s in regards to how magic is handled, making it less about why magic exists in this setting or what it can and can’t do, and more about how those who have magic use it and what that says about them.

I’d say my one and only qualm with the novel is that Holland is an interesting character who we don’t get to learn enough about. We know he and Kell are the last living Antari, that he comes from White London, is immensely powerful, and his servitude to the twin rulers of White London is less than voluntary. The reader is given this shadow of a man who makes for a terrifying threat, but lacks detail. Given the reason behind his service to the royals of White London, I understand why he is not as fleshed out as he could be, I just wish we could have seen the true Holland. He is a great foil for Kell and their scenes together were a highlight of the book.

The sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, released today. If you like philosophy with your magic, storytelling dripping with empathy and emotion, and a setting that mixes the mundane of our world with the fantastical, than you’d better pick up both of V.E. Schwab’s books. No point hitting up the bookstore for one when the other is waiting for you to reach out and grab it. Careful though. You never know what kind of trouble it might lead to, or where.

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