I have two confessions to make before we get into this review: I didn’t even get halfway through this book, and I bought it almost entirely based on that totally sweet cover. The latter choice was probably a mistake.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. A Darker Shade of Magic also has a killer premise: protagonist Kell is one of the last magic-users capable of stepping between four parallel universes, each of which share a version of the city of London. Grey London is our own world in the mid-19th century, Kell’s native Red London is a fantastical place where magic is an everyday fact of life, in White London magic is in decline and has left violence and chaos to fill the absence, while Black London suffered from the opposite problem and was destroyed due to its inhabitants embracing magic a little too heavily. Kell normally acts as a messenger for the rulers of the three remaining Londons as they keep an eye on various magical issues and try to make sure another disaster doesn’t occur, but when he’s tricked into smuggling a dangerous artifact from Black London into Red he has to team up with a plucky heroine from Grey London to set things right.
I assume. Like I said, I only got to the point where the plot was starting to take off.
Among A Darker Shade of Magic’s manifest problems, the squandering of that fascinating premise is probably the worst. Each of the three Londons Kell visited during my time with the book is sketched out in the thinnest brushstrokes, so that you end up vaguely appreciating the nuances of the setting rather than becoming fully immersed in them. It’s interesting that Red London is this thriving magical city and White London is literally fading away as the magic leaks out of it, its increasingly-unhinged citizens carving runes into themselves in a desperate attempt to retain what power they can, but only in the same way that a photo of the Grand Canyon is interesting. It’s engaging in theory, but in practice you probably won’t want to spend more than a few seconds looking at it. Even Grey London feels like an insubstantial suggestion of an idea instead of a real place even though it, you know, is a real place.
This wouldn’t hurt the book so much if the characters were more interesting. Kell is basically a cardboard cut-out with “fantasy-adventure protagonist” written on it; he is mysterious in exactly the ways you expect him to be mysterious and brooding in exactly the ways you expect him to be brooding. His behaviour follows the archetype of the mildly rogueish scamp with a heart of gold down to an absolute tee. Attempts to inject him with a little bit of character depth just straight-up don’t work- we find out early on that he was adopted by the royal family at a young age when his powers were discovered and he feels that they treat him like a possession because…. I don’t know. The King and Queen clearly love him and seemed to have raised him as if he was their own son, and Kell and the crown prince are total bros. There’s no indication that Kell resents having the job of interdimensional royal messenger placed on him- in fact he seems to enjoy it- so I have no idea what the problem is. We’re just told that he’s angsty about his position in life and expected to accept it, because.
Admittedly it seems as if his memories of his previous life were magically sealed as part of this deal, but that just opens up a situation dismayingly similar to the one in The Fifth Sorceress where the King and Queen won’t tell him anything for no apparent reason, so he just gives up and stops asking in order to maintain the mystery.
(Incidentally, I’m 90% certain I can guess what Kell’s big secret is based solely on the fact that he has a big secret and how predictable the rest of the book is. I’d wager most of you can probably work it out as well just from reading the synopsis)
Lila, the cross-dressing thief from our world that Kell teams up with, doesn’t fair much better. She yearns generically for adventure and excitement and wants to be a pirate, an aspiration that’s so childishly presented I was honestly confused about whether I was supposed to take it seriously. I don’t know why she wants to be a pirate. Just because, I guess. Oh and a dude tries to rape her so she murders him, and she hates other women, so you know she’s a Strong Female Character. Things picked up briefly when Kell had a run-in with the endearingly creepy and violent rulers of White London, but everyone else in the cast feels equally as one-note and boring.
There’s also the fact that the writing is quite frankly just not that good. It never gets into Rothfussian levels of grinning and eye-twinkling but characters sigh and frown and quirk their mouths near-constantly and when the prose isn’t repetitive its boring and colourless. In fact, that’s a good way of summing the book up: boring and colourless. Reading it is like trying to eat through an enormous pile of cabbage that’s been boiled vigorously for twelve hours. Yes, it’s technically food, and there isn’t enough flavour for it to be in any way unpleasant, but you’re not going to go at it with any level of enthusiasm.
VE Schwab also writes YA under the name Victoria Schwab and I was surprised to learn that A Darker Shade of Magic is intended for adults. Everything about the book, from the character’s worldview and mindsets to the prose, feels profoundly YA-ish, and not good YA. The kind of YA written by people who think teenagers are nine year olds with acne.
But hey at least it has a totally sick-ass cover, right? Maybe buy a copy and then just put it on your shelf so you can look at it.