Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons. There’s Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There’s Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London…
Urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres but I haven’t had the chance to read as much of it as I would have liked in 2015 so it’s time that I started to remedy that with A Darker Shade of Magic, the first book in the new historical young adult fiction written by V.E. Schwab, that offers a great, fun romp through many different takes on London that allow for an excellent read with some strong lead protagonists to boot.
The world building on display here is fantastic and you really get a strong sense of imagery and the layout of the different Londons that we’re presented to. Yes, it may be just a bit too heavy on the worldbuilding in the first act, but once you get through you’re in for some great fun. The world is interesting enough so that you can’t help but want to read more anyway so that shouldn’t put you off, as the alternate Londons on display here are fascinating. Grey London is the ordinary London, home to King George III, and lacks any magic. It’s a far cry from Red London, home to magic, and where life is actually revered, and White London is home to whoever has conquered it at the time. It’s an interesting take on London that works well, and as always, the best urban fantasy stories tend to be set in the city, apart from The Dresden Files of course.
The characters themselves are great and their dynamic is fun to read. Kell lies in Red London, travelling between worlds with their respective rulers acting as a messenger whilst participating in off the books smuggling, which is illegal and frowned upon. However, when he runs into trouble after coming back from White London, he’s forced to head to Grey London where he runs into the thief Deliah Bard. Doing what thieves do, Lila naturally robs him, but soon finds herself in greater trouble than she could have imagined. The character dynamic between Kell and Lila is fun and their interactions are enjoyable to read as Schwab creates strong, likeable protagonists at the heart of the book, even if Lila suffers from the trope of being a part of the thief with bigger dreams caught out of her depth.
The main draw of the book is the alternate worlds and the setting but the plot is fun as well, even if not particularly memorable. It has echoes of Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, which is one of my favourite reads, and fans of that series will enjoy what is on display here, with a level of pace that’s mostly solid after the initial worldbuilding is out of the way.
On the whole, A Darker Shade of Magic is a great read that should appeal to pretty much any fan of fantasy. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and incredibly entertaining. This book may well be one of my favourite novels of the year, and I can’t wait for the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, out next year.