If I had to compare A Darker Shade of Magic to one of the Harry Potter books, it would not be the Sorcerer’s Stone where we first meet the innocent, wide-eyed child magicians who are just discovering magic. No, I’d have to say A Darker Shade of Magic is more like Goblet of Fire or the Half Blood Prince, where bad things start to happen. Very, very bad things.
In A Darker Shade of Magic, magic doesn’t just exist in an alternate world accessed by platform 9 and ¾ or Diagon Alley. Magic exists in a parallel London. Well actually it’s four parallel Londons: Red London where the land and people are prosperous, Grey London where the people know nothing of magic, White London, where magic exists but is being leached out of the world leaving it pale and desperate, and Black London which has been cut off and sealed like a tomb to stop the cancer of dark magic that began there and threatened to spread to the neighboring kingdoms.
Only a race of people known as Antari have enough magic in their blood to traverse between the kingdoms. And there are only two Antari left: Kell and Holland. Kell was raised by the King and Queen of carefree Red London while Holland was magically enslaved by Astrid and Athos Dane, the ruthless twin rulers the of White London.
Kell was adopted by the King and Queen of Red London at age 5 and has no memory of his life before then. Although Kell is raised alongside the heir to the throne Prince Rhys, who treats Kell like a brother, Kell feels “more like a possession than a prince”. As an Antari, he is valuable to the King because he can breach the boundaries between the worlds. But would Kell still have a place in the royal palace if it wasn’t for his magic?
Since Kell is the only one in Red London with the power to pass between worlds, he is errand boy for the King. Kell is resentful of this duty and in defiance he brings back tokens, small objects with magic powers, during his trips between worlds. In other words, Kell is a smuggler, which is illegal. When the worlds were shut off it was decreed that no items shall pass between them. When Kell is sent to deliver a message to White London on behalf of the Red King, he carelessly brings something back between the worlds. Kell quickly realizes that he has been set up and that the object he brought out of White London is not just a simple trinket, it is something dark and sinister that could threaten the peace and stability of his world. Kell must return the object to where it came from and figure out who sent it to him and why.
In order to send the dark magic back to where it came from Kell must first get the object back after it is pickpocketed by Delilah ‘Lila’ Bard, a street smart waif who is the most notorious pickpocket in Grey London. Kell soon finds out that dealing with Lila is much harder than traveling between worlds. She is stubborn, greedy and shrewd. Even with Kell’s magic he can’t get her to return what she stole from him. Kell realizes the only way to get the object from Lila is to strike a deal with her: Lila will give Kell the object if he takes her with him out of Grey London. Kell’s got himself a partner in crime whether he likes it or not.
Kell may feel like an outcast amongst his ‘family’ because he doesn’t have royal blood, but Lila’s home life is really something to complain about. She killed a man at age 15 when her father tried to sell her to settle a bar tap and when we’re first introduced to her she is posing as a man and robbing Grey London blind. Lila is not moved by Kell’s poor little rich boy sob story. “Some people steal to stay alive and some people steal to feel alive” she tells Kell after he confesses to his smuggling habit. Kell quickly realizes his Red London problems don’t mean anything to someone who has lived on the streets and literally kill just to survive. Kell considers his new companion a temporary inconvenience, but he soon learns that Delilah is very good at one thing: staying alive. And Kell just might need Lila if he plans on staying alive too.
One of the best things about A Darker Shade of Magic is the relationship between Lila and Kell. It’s not a relationship based on romance, but one of mutual respect. Lila is clever, witty, sassy and self sufficient. She dreams of being a pirate so she can travel beyond dreary Grey London, not of being a princess, and she certainly doesn’t need a prince to save her. Yes, she is a thief, but she has managed to stay alive, despite the odds against it. Kell is an outcast of sorts too; the last of his kind, a prince, and a smuggler. Kell’s magic keeps the royal family and the city safe, but people still view him with suspicion because he is Antari. He can travel between worlds but he’s never been outside the boundaries of any of the Londons. Kell and Lila both long for a freedom that their circumstances deny them.
Schwab gives us not just one alternate world, but four. Each London is a contained world that reacts to the existence of magic in their own way based on their proximity to Black London where the dark magic originates. Red London, farthest from the evil and first to seal its border in self preservation, is doing well because it is insulated from the danger. And when you don’t have to see how others suffer, it’s easy to forget there’s a problem. When Kell brings danger right to his own doorstep, everyone is forced to face reality. And it’s a harsh reality.
“Magic is not about balance, it’s about dominance. You control it or it controls you.” In Schwab’s hands magic is like a drug, used in the right dosage it’s powers can heal, used incorrectly and it is a lethal poison. Although there is resolution at the end of A Darker Shade of Magic, I still felt withdrawal symptoms at the book’s end. I am eagerly waiting a return to the four Londons in the sequel A Gathering of Shadows out February 2016.
Check out the book trailer for A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. And if you love the cover art as much as I do, check out this article from tor.com on how the final art was chosen and see more work from artist Will Staehle .