Published by Tor Books on February 24th 2015
Format: Ebook, Hardback
Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.
Oh my gosh. I really liked this book. Well, ‘liked’ is a bit of an understatement I guess.
What makes this book so good, to me, is a) the characters and b) the worldbuilding.
The basic premise behind the setting is that there are four different Londons that exist parallel to each other. In A Darker Shade of Magic the doors between the worlds have been sealed so only one type of magician can travel in between them, these are the Antari who use blood magic. The Antari are a dying breed of magicians so they are an extremely value commodity.
Kell, one of our main characters in this story, is one of those Antari. He belongs to the royal family of Red London. Red London is rich with magic. Most of the inhabitants have use of some kind of magic and even the river runs red with it.
Kell is in some respects treated like a member of the royal family, given the title prince and growing up alongside the only son of the king and queen, Rhy. But in other respects he is their property, a useful servant. He is often used as a courier between worlds. He’s regularly asked to carry messages to the royalty in magic starved White London and magicless Grey London.
Alongside his official duties he often explores his surroundings in the other Londons, particularly Grey London and trades artefacts with collectors. Basically, alongside his normal duties he has fallen into the habit of smuggling trinkets between the worlds, something he is strictly prohibited from doing.
Kell’s smuggling habit kind of reminds me a bit of Ariel collecting items from the human world in Disney’s The Little Mermaid as Kell has a secret set of rooms in Red London where he stashes his trinkets including maps, music boxes and the like. It’s his outlet for rebellion in an otherwise tightly managed life and it represents his inner desire to escape the bounds of the court. Of course, the internal conflict he has with this desire is the true love he has for Prince Rhy as his beloved brother. He can’t help but feel he is betraying true family in that respect.
Kell’s poorly kept secret rebellious acts is of course what leads him into trouble in this brilliant first instalment in the Shades of Magic series. Schwab takes us on an adventure that takes us back and forth through each of the Londons as Kell tries to set things right after unknowingly (and rather catastrophically) bringing a piece of a forbidden London into his own world.
The narrative necessity to travel between the Londons gives Schwab an excellent opportunity to do some great world building to establish these distinctly separate Londons. As Lila puts it ‘There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London’, which reminds me that I haven’t even touched on the delightfully armed to the teeth Delilah Bard yet.
Lila is our other main character. She’s a resident of Grey London with a mysterious past and a penchant for thievery. Her first collision with Kell involves pickpocketing in disguise and ends up with Kell tied to her bed. Lila is anything but reserved. She is pretty amazing and kind of impossible, which makes her even more amazing.
Lila and Kell together make an awesome team, contrasting and complimenting each other well throughout their unlikely partnership.
This book builds the groundwork for the series wonderfully, making for a fairly self-contained story in its own right, but one absolutely loaded with potential for tonnes of strands to be explored further in future instalments. Schwab excellently builds up the characters and world in a forward moving fashion. These practical elements never interfere with the pacing of the action, rather it drives the action.
I cannot wait to read the next instalment and see what Schwab does with these characters and settings next.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Flights of Fantasy 2018