A Darker Shade of Magic is a fantasy novel that has a significantly complicated world building. There are four worlds, four Londons, all living parallel to one another. Only Antarai can pass between the worlds and bring messages from one London to another. One of them, Grey London, is our world in 1815 where there has never been magic. Black London which was long ago consumed by magic while White London is a cruel world that is dying without it. Our main character Kell comes from Red London where magic is alive and well and a part of everyday life. It sounds as if it is going to make no sense whatsoever when reading but the world building was clear and detailed enough that I was never confused.
Kell is very internal, and because this novel is written in the third person at the end of the book, he is still as much of a mystery as at the beginning. This is almost appropriate as he is a mystery to myself as well as Lila and the reader. He is both a charismatic and a fascinating character, but I can't help thinking that there is a lot more to him than was revealed in this book.
Lila was a bit rough for me as a character. She is a young woman from our world who dresses like a man and steals. The world has fucked her over, and Lila spends a good amount of the book dealing with generalized anger at it. I was attracted to the way that she had larger dreams than her life allowed. Do you know that phrase "instead of waiting for life make life happen?" Lila Bard is the personification of that phrase. She was continually forcing something to happen even when it would have been better to take a moment to reflect. I am all about the private internal lives of a character, so I liked her best during her very few and far between moments of vulnerability. I don't think that I would want to be friends with Lila but I did enjoy reading about her. BTW: I have ideas about her eye that I am wondering about for the next books. Don't tell me I have to get to them!
A Darker Shade of Magic is a dark story. The main villains are creepy as hell twins. The book does not shy away from blood and violence. Humans have their free will undermined by magic and magic itself can be a seductively destructive force. The world is glitteringly beautiful, but it would never be safe, comfortable, or a place you would want to call home.
One thing that I find interesting with V.E. Schwab's writing is the spareness of both characters and characterization. When I visualize while reading her novels, I tend to think of enormous places with very few characters. Streets are deserted, secondary characters neither move nor speak, and there is a large echoingly empty throne room. This doesn't bother me at all, but I do notice it. There aren't crowds, and even if a character is in the midst of one, there is a detachment from it that makes them feel far away. It seems to highlight the feeling of both introversion and isolation.
In the end, I wanted more and more and more. I need to get ahold of the next book right away.
Kell is one of the last travelers--magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.
There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King--George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered--and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London--a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.