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A Darker Shade of Magic photo cover_adarkershadeofmagic_zps12923fe2.jpg

Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.

Officially, Kell is the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to take her with him for her proper adventure.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — a feat trickier than they hoped.

Friends! I bet you have figured out by now that I am the local curmudgeonly contrarian, and I don't like anything. Well STRAP IN, because I have POSITIVE REVIEW today! And for once, it's SPOILER FREE!

Yes! A Darker Shade of Magic was delightful, and I have exceedingly few complaints about it (of course it wouldn't be me if there were NO complaints).

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Like All the Birds in the Sky, this is a book of and about tropes. The setup is trope-tastic; you've heard this all before. You have your world-weary but young magician struggling with his place in the world, your dubiously moral cutpurse scrappy lady, your ruthless evil mage, your overall setting as a portal fantasy. It's all very by-the-numbers, but A Darker Shade of Magic is an exercise in colouring inside the lines and making it sing.

Let's start with one of the novel's great strengths: the worldbuilding. Schwab develops not one world, but four, distinguished by the colour Kell associates with each. Grey London is our world, or near enough, where magic has been largely forgotten. Red London is Kell's world, where magic thrives and is in balance, supporting a vast empire. White London is starved for magic, and claws and bites and scratches for every scrap of magic left in their world. And Black London, filled in largely by implication, is a world where magic lost its balance and consumed everything.

Lila, the female protagonist of the two, comes from Grey London, and is from a marginalized background, being a woman and poor (and a cross-dresser). She provides an excellent foil to Kell, who comes from privilege and power, and I want to talk about how they play off each other. Their dialogue is not only snarky and clever, but also filled with class distinctions. Central to this novel to me is its examination of magic as a tool of power and privilege. Lila calls Kell out on his privilege at one point, and I want to reproduce the entire exchange here:
Kell hesitated. All he wanted to do was to cross through the city as quickly as possible, retrieve a White London token from his rooms, and get the wretched black stone out of this world. But Lila didn't look like she planned on moving until he answered her. "I belong to the royal family," he said.

In the matter of hours he'd known Lila, he'd learned that she didn't surprise easily, but at this claim, her eyes finally went wide with disbelief. "You're a prince?"

"No," he said firmly.

"Like the pretty fellow in the carriage? Is he your brother?"

"His name is Rhy, and no." Kell cringed when he said it. "Well... not exactly."

"So you're the black-eyed prince. I have to admit, I never took you for a—"

"I'm not a prince, Lila."

"I suppose I can see it, you are rather arrogant and—"

"I'm not a—"

"But what's a member of the royal family doing—"

Kell pushed her back against the brick wall of the alley. "I'm not a member of the royal family," he snapped. "I belong to them."

Lila's forehead wrinkled. "What do you mean?"

"They own me," he said, cringing at the words. "I'm a possession. A trinket. So you see, I grew up in the palace, but it is not my home. I was raised by royals, but they are not my family, not my blood. I have worth to them and so they keep me, but that is not the same as belonging."

The words burned when he spoke them. He knew he wasn't being fair to the king and queen, who treated him with warmth, if not love, or to Rhy, who had always looked on him as a brother. But it was true, wasn't it? As much as it pained him. For all his caring, and for theirs, the fact remained that he was a weapon, a shield, a tool to be used. He was not a prince. He was not a son.

"You poor thing," said Lila coldly, pushing him away. "What do you want? Pity? You won't find it from me."

Kell clenched his jaw. "I didn't—"

"You have a house if not a home," she spat. "You have people who care for you if not about you. You may not have everything you want, but I'd wager you have everything you could ever need, and you have the audacity to claim it all forfeit because it is not love."

"I—"

"Love doesn't keep us from freezing to death, Kell," she continued, "or starving, or being knifed for the coin in our pocket. Love doesn't buy us anything, so be glad for what you have and who you have because you may want for things but you need for nothing."
pp. 233-235

Ouch. I mean, Lila is on point here. And while Red London is presented as a successful empire, it's also presented as a stratified one, with the magically gifted "haves" rising to the top and the less magically gifted "have-nots" lingering around the bottom of society. Notably, the prince Rhy is an exception to this: born into the royal family, he isn't magically gifted, and I would argue that it's his insecurity about this, alongside Kell's habit of smuggling items between worlds, that kick-starts the plot.

Well, "kick-start" is a bit of a misnomer here, because the plot does take its time showing up, but that's honestly not to the novel's detriment: the book spends the first hundred pages or so setting up the worlds and characters, and this is done with enough skill and grace that I really didn't mind the wait. The writing is eminently readable, easy and fast-paced even in its dark and violent moments. And boy, does this book get dark and violent. The Book Smugglers wondered whether it's too violent, and I can see the concern, but this is an adult book (not YA, hey, dudebros on Goodreads, yeah?) and I would argue that it doesn't revel in its violence so much as expose it. Power (magic) has consequences, and they can get dark and ugly. The book is great at ratcheting up the tension; I actually had to put it down a few times because things were getting too intense.

But back to Rhy for a moment. He's the decadent but well-meaning counterpoint to a largely heteronormative narrative, and I love him. His male lovers are mentioned offhand, and no one in Red London seems to think much of it, which is great. The book does suffer from moments of heteronormativity, like this one:
Vessels of all shapes and sizes, from brigs and galleys to schooners and frigates, bobbed on the red waves, their sails billowing. Dozens of emblems marked the fabric on their masts and flanks, but over them all, red and gold banners had been hung. They glittered, taunting her. Come aboard, they seemed to say. I can be yours. Had Lila been a man, and the ships fair maidens guiding up their skirts, she could not have wanted them more. Hang the dresses, she thought. I'll take a ship.
p. 217

It can be argued that this is just Lila's heteronormative perspective, but I'm just tired of seeing this sort of thing, not just in general narrative but also as unexamined worldviews of particular characters — worldviews that are never critiqued by the text.

Speaking of heteronormativity, I was also never clear on whether the narrative expected me to buy the Kell and Lila romance as, well, a romance, or as just two comrades who had kissed a couple of times. Personally, I would lean towards the latter interpretation, and their interaction doesn't strike me as terribly romantic in a book that lives on tropes. It's a great relationship; I just don't buy it as a romantic one, and honestly I think this interpretation makes the text stronger. It gives me a man and a woman who strengthen each other and bite at each other without tiresome "will they or won't they" tension. ANSWER: THEY WON'T, they're just buddies! Kissing can just be a form of affection, not necessarily something sexual or romantic! I especially feel that if you take the friends reading, then this book actually pushes back against heteronormativity, because here are a man and a woman and they are even a bit intimate, but hey guess what, BIG NOPE.

I don't know. Friends! What do you think! LET'S DO A POLL:

Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 4


Kell and Lila: BFFs or Romantic?

View Answers

BFFs
4 (100.0%)

Romantic
0 (0.0%)



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But enough about Kell and Lila together; what about Kell and Lila apart? They're great characters, sharply drawn and easy to sympathize with. Kell and Lila each chafe at the bonds put on them by their respective societies and backgrounds. I find Lila the more interesting of the two in this sense; it's not that I don't feel for Kell and his highly circumscribed existence, it's just that Lila rebels against gender norms and that is just pure catnip to me. She seems to be an all cis woman, but also an active crossdresser, which I love. The getup when she goes to a royal masquerade in Red London is lovingly described, and I won't spoil it for you — just read this awesome book and experience it yourself — but I will say that it includes pants. Back in her Grey London past, she also dressed as a man while thieving, such that the cops think they're looking for a male thief in the area, not a woman. Lila's encounter with a cop, the very first time we meet her, is delightfully brash.

Kell, meanwhile, comes this close to being angsty without ever actually crossing the line — he mostly just seems tired. I like comparing and contrasting him with both Lila and Rhy: Lila because like her he is constrained by his background and rebels against this; Rhy because Rhy is in many ways his opposite number. Rhy is born to privilege but not magical power; Kell is born with nearly-unique magical gifts but his past is a mystery, and he, as he puts it, "belongs to" the royal family. They are each, in their individual ways, thrill-seekers: Rhy through his many affairs and nights of carousing and Kell through his smuggling. They play off each other so well, and have so much affection for each other. I CAN'T HELP BUT SHIP THEM OKAY?

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Thus, the characters: engaging, delightful, many-layered. Yes. Good. The world is also engaging and well-developed, and the magical system clear and easy to understand without being entirely predictable. Magic is presented as a living force, and Kell manages to bargain with it once. So what about the plot? The plot, like the setting and characters, is pretty standard, but for the most part so well done that I really didn't mind just coming along for the ride. You have your Good Monarchs Who Are Threatened, your Bad Monarchs, you have your Magical Macguffin, and you have your Two Heroes who oppose the dark forces and cross the worlds to stop the bad magic, pursued by the Evil Magician. What surprised me was how consistently the plot managed to keep upping the tension even when I could predict a move or three ahead. It still felt very tense and rewarding to read, which is the mark of a great storyteller. There was one subplot that escalated consistently through two thirds of the book and then was resolved (literally magically) basically offscreen, but it's one weakness in a book that overall holds together and holds its own.

Overall, I loved A Darker Shade of Magic and can't wait to read the sequel. Join me and read it soon! (And then you can take the Kell and Lila poll!)

Supplemental Materials


Renay's thoughts on A Darker Shade of Magic
Read the first chapter of A Darker Shade of Magic

Other Reviews


The Book Smugglers
Open Letters Monthly
The Great and Wonderful Bookshelf
Book Swoon
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