Series: Shades of Magic #1
Published by Tor on 24th February 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: e-Book, eBook
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Kell is one of the last Travelers — magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes — as such, he can choose where he lands.
There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there's Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne — 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, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, 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 — a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — and that is proving trickier than they hoped.
“That was the thing about magic. It was everywhere. In everything. In everyone. And while it coursed like a low and steady pulse, through the air and the earth, it beat louder in the bodies of living things. And if Kell tried — if he reached — he could feel it.”
I may just be making very general comparisons based upon the fact that they both deal with magic, but reading this reminded me very strongly of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. So, if nothing else, I’d like somebody to pitch A Darker Shade of Magic to Studio Ghibli and see if we can’t get an animated take on it, because I have no doubt that it would be gorgeous.
And after taking some time to consider, I think that inclination towards a hand-drawn and very colorful adaptation gets at the heart of what, for me, this book does well and what it does not. Visually, it’s beautiful, and I mean that both literally (look at that cover!) and figuratively. Sure, the meat of the story might be presented in nothing but black text on white, but Schwab’s writing and worldbuilding hint at something gorgeous when you let your imagination run with the descriptions. It’s a sort of steampunk/high fantasy triptych of alternate realities, and each is shot through with a single hue that cleverly represents the state of each world architecturally and socially: the vibrant crimson of the thriving and bustling sorcery of Red London, the bleached ghostliness of the starved and power-hungry White London, the dulled soot and grime of plain Grey London.
And, of course, there’s the magic: spectral chains, floating balls of water, doorways formed in walls, living smoke, the works. Nothing about this iteration of wizardry is particularly original if you’re a fantasy buff, with its emphasis on the manipulation of elements and the powers of blood as a catalyst, but it’s flashy and given enough depth in its mechanics to avoid becoming all style, no substance. I’m a sucker for intricate and thoroughly-examined systems of magic, and Schwab’s fits the bill quite nicely. It’s great food for thought — sequences and sets that I would draw art for if I had a shred of that sort of talent. (I sometimes think meanly of my younger self for not picking up a pencil more frequently. I could have been so talented by this point in my life. People would think that I was much cooler.)
What hinders the pretty picture is the fact that, once you look a bit more closely, you realize that the canvas that all of the nice colors were splashed onto is sort of bare. Another reason why I think this book would do well as a movie: it’s fairly long, but it’s simple enough that I don’t think a scriptwriter would have too much trouble condensing it into a couple of hours.
“Blood was magic made manifest. There it thrived. And there it poisoned. Kell had seen what happened when power warred with the body, watched it darken in the veins of corrupted men, turning their blood from crimson to black. If red was the color of magic in balance — of harmony between power and humanity — then black was the color of magic without balance, without order, without restraint.”
It’s not that there are large sections of padding or repetitive action. The story just takes its time to move along, focusing on a lot of little things — a more detailed conversation here, a bit of backstory there — so that when you get to the end, you realize that not a whole lot actually happened to get things from point A to point B, and the two really aren’t all that different when you really think about it. Sure, there are revelations and twists and dramatic confrontations, but that’s mostly because all of the big stuff happens during the last handful of chapters, with a whole lot of gradual build-up to get those quick, definitive moments in place, and then it’s all reset to the original status during the denouement.
Let’s stop that train of though to focus on the cornerstones of all of this excitement. We have our two main characters, Kell and Delilah, and a small supporting cast that doesn’t do enough to provide much more than the occasional diversion or bit of flair. Of our duo, one is a rare species of magician who lives in Red London, the other is a thief who dreams of adventure in Grey. Kell likes to dabble in illegal inter-dimensional trading while performing his duties as an envoy between the various Londons, while Delilah desperately wants to escape her dull reality to become a pirate of the high seas. The first two-thirds or so of the book is devoted to examining how these two meet, separate, meet again, and finally team up to get rid of a very dangerous artifact from the dead and forbidden Black London that Kell bumbles his way into possessing.
It’s a moderate start, but there are enough shenanigans with enchantments and charms and other worlds to make it fun. The real strength of Schwab’s work is her characterization, which is very strong in the two leads. Both of them are likable, sort of annoying at times, and get some great banter, and their partnership is handled well (even if its hints at a romance seem sort of unnecessary at this stage, especially with so many other things going on). Kell is powerful and smart but something of a dork. Delilah is capable and straightforward but something of a romantic. I like them both a lot.
To tie this back into my original point: the slow beginning and middle that spends so much time on fleshing out these two ends up working against the finale, because the last third or so of the book manages to veer in the opposite direction and suddenly feel very rushed. When it’s not building relationships or individuals, a good chunk of the story is spent shoring up tantalizing conflicts that seem drastic enough to take the entire trilogy to resolve: a journey to Black London to discard a dangerously powerful artifact, an uncertain relationship with the dangerously greedy twin rulers of White, a threat of possessed sentient magic running amok throughout the various worlds. It gets to the point several hundred pages in where you assume that A Darker Shade of Magic is mostly going to be set-up for an overarching plot. And if that means a slower pace but solid characters, it’s a trade that seems worthwhile.
Then, however, you get to the last few chapters, where everything abruptly shifts into overdrive and all of the plotting comes to a head. Another hundred pages later, and all of those promising loose ends have been neatly wrapped up in a bow, and we’re given a ‘And Everything Worked Out in the End’ happy conclusion that doesn’t really leave anything open for the sequel.
“Magic might live in the blood, but not in the bloodline. It wasn’t passed from parent to child. It chose its own way. Chose its shape. The strong sometimes gave birth to the weak, or the other way around.”
It’s not that the resolution is forced or unrealistic. It just comes about so smoothly after so much preparation that it’s a bit of a let-down. I doubt that Schwab won’t have any other fun stories to explore in her followups, but it feels like a missed opportunity. How much more elaborate and exciting would Kell and Delilah’s quest have been had it taken them three full books to reach Black London? If the entire second installation had been dedicated had been devoted to dealing with White London’s shady king and queen and/or the living sorceries that are multiplying throughout the dimensions? Instead, we don’t even get to see Black, the face-off in White is perfunctory and sort of predictable, and the threat of dark enchantments running amok is promptly snipped during a quick epilogue summary.
In the end, it’s a pretty clean happily-ever-after with some very vague sequel hooks of the usual nature that aren’t necessarily enough to pull you into the sequel (Kell’s past, for instance, is hinted at but mostly ignored enough that you aren’t particularly worried about it), which makes me wonder how the rest of the series is going to fit with this one. To go back to the movie comparisons, it’s like one of those series that was initially meant to be a standalone release but was given multiple sequels after proving to be surprise successes, ending up with an isolated first installment followed by a second and third that are more their own little duology. Nothing particularly wrong with that format, of course, but it seems a little lacking when we could have gotten a more ambitious tale that spanned all of the books, not just some of them.
Still, I’m glad that, for the first time in a good long while, a hyped YA title managed to mostly live up to all of its praise. I might have my issues with it, but it’s a good little world that I don’t regret getting lost in for a couple of weeks.
So… Should I Read It?
For once, I won’t throw any caveats at you. As long as you’re into this genre, I say you can’t go wrong. It might not be the next Big Thing that you were hoping to obsess over, but you’ll have a good time while it lasts.