Thursday 23 February 2017

A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab

Antari could speak to blood. To life. To magic itself. The first and final element, the one that lived in all and was of none.
"As Travars," he said. Travel. 
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.

* * * * *
5 / 5

This book is simply stunning. It epitomises what fantasy fiction should be about: wonder, intrigue, deception, and most of all, magic. Every time I have read this I am enthralled by Schwab's characters, writing, and the delightful universe that she has crafted.

"As Travars," he said. The wall gave way and the traveler and the thief stepped forward and through

I had the fortune to first read A Darker Shade of Magic back when it was first published (I bought in on March 28th, 2015 to be exact) and before V. E. Schwab become popular. In fact I'm reasonably sure I happened upon the book by chance on Amazon, whilst searching for something else to buy to get my basket total high enough to qualify for free shipping. I mention this because I had the luck to read this book before it was surrounded by hype, so I was free to read it without expectations. Because it is a marvellous, wonderful, original, magical book and hype is a dangerous and wicked thing. I am, however, absolutely thrilled that Schwab's writing is getting the recognition it deserves.

I write this review having read it again in preparation for the release of A Conjuring of Light, and having now read some of Schwab's other work (specifically Vicious and This Savage Song). The Shades of Magic books are, in my opinion, definitely her best - the most original, the best writing, the most tantalising characters and setting. The premise is simple, in four overlapping universes there exists a London, differing yet the same. Black London was devoured, consumed by magic and the people that used it, but the other three still stand and can be traversed between. Each has its own character and levels of magic.

Grey for the magic-less city
Red, for the healthy empire
White, for the starving world 
Enter Kell, an Antari - one who can walk between the worlds, in one of the most delightful entrances since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He's a risk-taker, a charmer, and a powerful mage, but he's terrible in combat, privileged and has an angry streak. He's also got a coat with many sides. Kell is officially an ambassador, bringing correspondence between the rulers of the Londons. Unofficially, since his privileged and thrilling life clearly isn't exciting enough for him, Kell is a smuggler of goods, breaker of the ancient law that no magical (or mundane) items may pass between the worlds. It is this deliciously naughty habit that launches Kell into the path of Delilah Bard, thief and cutpurse.

Lila Bard lived by a simple rule: if a thing was worth having, it was worth taking
The first of numerous things that I love about Delilah is her name, most likely because I'm exceedingly fond of the song Delilah by Florence + the Machine, and I play a bard/minstrel type character in lots of MMO's. The second thing I love about Lila is her wanderlust. Nineteen years old and yearning for the seas, for the winds that will bear her to freedom, and the song of the sea that calls her to adventure. She's exactly the kind of woman I'd have liked to be if I'd have learned that there existed a Red London: stubborn, daring, and determined to live to see it. She sets ships ablaze, steals knives, and has good taste in men's clothes.

"They disrespect me," said Rhy with a dry smile. "The earth beneath your feet does not care you will be king."

Rhy Maresh is the Crown Prince of Arnes, Kell's adoptive brother, and the royal flirt. He likes his fair share of debauchery but is also a kind, just man, if a little dense. Astrid and Athos Dane rule White London, an ash-coloured world forcibly drained of magic. They are vicious, totalitarian rulers, born and bred and raised in a city that struggles for power. Holland is the Antari of White London, bound against his will to the service of the Danes. The cast of A Darker Shade of Magic is varied and vibrant in character.

Schwab has the wonderful talent of writing gorgeous, understated prose. Her writing is elegant but not overly metaphorical, dramatic, or flowery, or any of those things that have a tendency to wear upon readers. For example:

Despite the city's soot and dire, its clutter and its poor, it had something Red London lacked: a resistance to change. An appreciation for the enduring, and the effort it took to make something so.
This is absolutely the kind of writing that I love and if you thought that was a few well written sentences then you'll adore Schwab's style. It complements the plot perfectly: magical, enticing, and full of wonder. We follow Kell and Lila through the worlds, through conspiracies and forbidden magical artifacts in a book that is wondrous and captivating until the very last page.

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