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A Darker Shade of Magic Kindle-editie
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Just a bit of brief plot summary for context. There are four Londons in this novel, and a select few individuals can magically travel among them. These are referred to as Grey London, Red London, White London, and Black London, and they are different in how magic affects each world, in how (and by whom) it can be used in each world (the equivalent of *our* world is Gray London). The action takes place in the first three; no one has visited Black London in quite a long time. Only London is the same in each world; in other worlds, there is no France, for example, and not even a proper "England" in Red London.
The parallel worlds thing has been done quite a lot in fantasy, but I am fine with that. I like the twist here, that one of our two main characters (Kell, more on him in a bit) is not from our world, but is from Red London, where magic is ubiquitous. (Often, in such stories, including those by Guy Gavriel Kay in the Fionavar Tapestry, in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, in Charles Stross's more sci-fi-based Merchant Princes series, etc., it is people from our world traveling elsewhere. So it is nice to see a different perspective.) I also like that this is not set in the present day, but instead in the past. So even though theme is familiar, there are some alterations that manage to make it unique.
We have two main characters, Kell and Lila. Kell is from Red London, as previously mentioned, while Lila is from Grey London. Both have mysterious pasts; Kell remembers basically nothing before he was taken in by the royal family of Arnes (the country containing Red London) due to his magical abilities. (He is an Antari, marked by having one normal eye and one that is completely black. There are very few Antari, and they are the only ones able to travel among the worlds. They also have nearly unparalleled magical abilities, in general.) Lila is alone on the streets, making a living (such that it is) as a pickpocket and dreaming of being a pirate with her own ship.
The two of them encounter one another maybe 1/3 of the way through the story and they travel and work together through much of the rest of the book. I wouldn't say their first encounter seems contrived, because there are some uncanny parallels between their two worlds, such as a particular inn/tavern that seems to be co-situated in all three of the Londons Kell has visited, the existence of London and the Thames, etc. Since they both live in London and visit the inn (different Londons and different inns, but eerily the same, as well), it seems they are fated to meet. And their abilities complement one another. Sometimes the secrecy and stealth of a thief is needed, sometimes reputation and magical fighting ability are better suited to the situation. I think they are a good team. There is no romance between them in this book, though it is possible something like that could be set up for the future. Kell's reputation and duties are such that he doesn't seem to be looking for love or to have the time for it (or the trust to share with someone else), while Lila masquerades as a man and doesn't have what would be considered traditional aspirations for a young woman in the society from which she hails. I find the lack of romance refreshing, especially in a mixed-gender pair like this.
The other thing I like about the characters is that they have nice depth. Both have secrets (including a tantalizing one about Lila revealed about halfway through; I can't wait to see where that goes in future books), both have killed (not just in self-defense), both have flaws, both have their own moral codes that might not be exactly the same as yours or mine. And yet, you are still cheering for them, and not just because other characters are worse. Both are quite sympathetic.
Moving on, there is a lot of action in this book and I think it is well-written. It can be difficult to describe magical battles such that the reader can envision everything that happens, but I felt that was not an issue here. (There were also physical battles, weapons like guns/knives, etc.) I felt there were adequate dangerous situations for both Kell and Lila (and some of their associates); although not everything turned out as I expected, neither just skated through. They ran into difficulties, they had to be resourceful. The sense of danger and the well-written fights made me feel like the plot was always moving forward, and at a nice pace, at that.
Speaking of the plot, I felt that it was basically self-contained in this book. There were endings for Lila and Kell. But, there were also some interesting possibilities laid out for future books. I am not yet sure where the overall series arc will take us (presumably we will learn the secrets of Lila's and Kell's pasts in future volumes -- I am not yet enough into volume two to see if that is true); however, there are some interesting possibilities for where things could go in the future.
I also liked the writing. As mentioned earlier, it was especially good during action sequences. But I also thought it was good at setting the scene for each of the different Londons. If you opened the book to a random part and didn't know which London you were in, I think you'd be able to guess based on the setting. And, when you were inside the protagonists' heads, their thoughts were different. They had different personalities, different aspirations, different goals. They were not just two aspects of the author projected onto the page. So that was also done well.
If I had one criticism, it would be that there were a few too many instances of characters being saved from very dire situations or being able to fight when they ought to have been incapacitated. It made for dramatic action, but it was perhaps not quite as believable within the context of the story as the author would have wanted. This is a common issue in fantasy novels, and considering that some degree of magical healing is accounted for here (as well as some consequences), it is not an unforgivable writing sin.
Anyway, on balance, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was a nice break from the epic fantasy I've been reading lately and I'm glad I picked it up!
Sigh. I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. Pretty much everyone I know told me how amazing this series was, but I hard a hard time with this one. I think there are a couple reasons for this:
1. The hype going in
2. the narration (I listened to the audio). The narrator did terrible female voices. Honestly, some of the worst I’ve ever heard. I listened to this on the heels of Illuminae, which is easily the very best audio book I’ve ever listened to, but still, this was bad. His male voices were good, but maaaannnnn those female voices. *cringes*
The story also moved a bit slow for me for about the first 50% of the book. There was a lot of world building and character development (the world Schwab creates was pretty amazing), but this made for a slow start.
With that being said, I did enjoy the book once I got past the halfway point. The two main protagonists are well developed and complex, and even the supporting characters are engaging.
I rated it 4/5 stars because while it was slow moving for me, I can appreciate the incredible world building that was cause for it being a little slow to start.
– While it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, I will continue the series. The second and third books have a different narrator so I would be willing to give those a shot again.
Kell travels between Londons on errands for his king, and on one of these errands he crosses paths with Delilah Bard. Lila is cross-dressing thief who is looking for an adventure. When Kell meets her in Grey London, the two embark on an adventure to save not only one world, but three.
We are also introduced to a host of other interesting characers. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Rhy, the crown prince of Red London. Rhy and Kell are as close as brothers, and even refer to each other as such. Kell is “adopted” by the king and queen, although we have no background as to where Kell came from. Holland, the Antari White London, and the evil Dane twins also have their important parts to play.
I enjoyed this book. Everything about it was very good. Although I will say it was a bit slow for me. I was okay with it because I enjoyed Kell and Lila, I enjoyed the magic and parallel worlds, but not much happened until the last 30% or so. The world-building and character building was magnificent so I enjoyed the slow-build up.
V.E. Schwab is a masterful storyteller and she has officially sucked me into her magical world. She created complex, interesting characters who I am eager to learn more about. If you are thinking about reading this series, I highly recommend it!
Suffice it to say, I was beyond pleased with this book. Schwab is slow to introduce each character, but it is a slow-burn that, once gaining momentum, never slows down. I have read the negative reviews claiming flat characters and a slow story and I can say that for me, I found nothing of the sort in my reading. Kell, Lila, Holland, and the cast of characters were so richly written for me that I felt like I knew them, understood them, felt their joy and their pain and sorrow.
In addition, the world was so well explained that I'm pretty sure I could be a Londons tour-guide if need be ;) However, Schwab does not bombard the reader with page after page of world-building exposition. Rather, she seamlessly weaves it into the story in a way that works perfectly.
The story is unlike any fantasy I've come across, the characters are wonderful, and the writing is brilliant. If you are a lover of fantasy, don't pass up A Darker Shade of Magic. It will be sure to take you on a fantastic journey.