The DishA Darker Shade of Magic is the first in a dark(er) fantasy trilogy by V.E. Schwab, published by Titan Books. The book is 384 pages long, a medium-sized paperback, and the chapters are cut up nice and small for ease of reading (something I’ve really come to appreciate this last year). The book is positively swathed in praise, inside and out, and it is (mostly) well-deserved.
There are four worlds, all different, but with one bizarre similarity. Every single one has a city called London in them. Magic is real, a living entity that exists in symbiosis with humanity. Kell, an Antari, is able to travel between the worlds, which are otherwise shut off from one another.
V.E. Schwab’s greatest talent lies in creating interesting and charismatic genre characters. She leans on some tropes and steers away from others to create a cast who are familiar yet strikingly unique. Kell, Lila, Rhy, Holland and the Danes are all very entertaining to watch and it’s easy to believe V.E. Schwab had a lot of fun writing their different interactions. The hardest part of writing this book was probably curbing their personalities to get the story written.
A lot happens in A Darker Shade of Magic. The book is never dull. There are fires, explosions, lots of stabbing, magic fights and, when the characters aren’t trying to kill one another, amusing and engaging banter. V.E. Schwab does an excellent line in ‘never a dull moment’ genre fiction and the good thing is that she’s building up quite a bibliography for anyone who might be hungry for more.
My favourite character, by a Grey London mile, is Lila. Anyone who knows me will probably have been able to see that coming. Not that Kell isn’t still a great character. In fact, I warmed to him thoroughly after the first few chapters and magnanimously decided that, yes, he could be the protagonist if he wanted. But Lila has the rough edges that I really appreciate in a character. She’s violent and sarcastic but still possesses a glimmer of charity and a hidden core of insecurity. I liked Lila a lot and, if I buy the second book in the series, it will probably be to see how she gets on.
Unfortunately, A Darker Shade of Magic does suffer from Vengeful-syndrome. The story is rollicking along at a blistering pace, full of excitement and twists and turns and the anticipation is rising to a fever pitch and then... Stuff kind of just tapers off.
The ending leaves a lot to be desired. I try not to leave spoilers in these reviews now so I won’t mention specifics, but several characters don’t get enough page space considering how major their roles are. The final battles are also over horribly quickly and result in less of a bang and more of a whimper after how massively they were built up through the rest of the story.
There were also some characters/plot lines who vanished during the story and nothing was ever made of them again. I feel like these really should have been trimmed back in editing rather than just left as loose ends.
For that matter, there are a surprising number of typos in this professionally edited manuscript, some of which are actually kind of major (like, three or four words mangled in what I assume must have been an edit-introduced error, which I saw a couple of times). While I hold traditionally-published authors to a higher standard than the self-published, I actually don’t mind the errors. It might just be the wannabe in me, delighting in the idea that I don’t need to be perfect to be a professional. Though, naturally, I will still try.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a good read. It’s got a solid, pacy story with thoroughly interesting characters and the build of tension throughout is sensational. The magic use is thrilling. The rules are simple and flexible enough to produce a lot of interesting results while still allowing the story to move along. Kell and Lila’s relationship was superbly drawn from start to finish and helped drive the major plot points home one after another.
But the ending seems half-baked. Rushed. The ways in which the final obstacles are overcome is a little too abrupt, too easy, to be satisfying. After the tremendous book I’d read, I had hoped for more from the finale.
That isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading. I’d say it very much is. And it has probably interested me enough to buy and read A Gathering of Shadows at some point.
I suppose, ultimately, no matter how harsh my criticisms sometimes are, V.E. Schwab’s work still hooks me deeply enough to keep bringing me back. And really, as an author, is there a greater compliment to receive?