Parallel worlds, as a concept, are pretty interesting, and have long been fascinating, to readers of all stripes, and therefore, to writers as well. Science has suggested—and the math has indicated—that there are parallel universes lying right next to our own, universes that might, superficially, be similar to ours, except for one small detail that alters that universe entirely and makes it completely different. However, neither fantasy nor sci-fi have needed accurate science and mathematics as an excuse to play around with parallel universes, so there’s plenty of writing out there that takes the concept and runs away with it, the only important factor being how cleverly a writer can use the idea in their story.
In the case of V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, the first book in a series of the same title, parallel worlds form the basis for a story that’s about getting away: to find and grab power; to find a space in which to belong; and to find a path to freedom.
A Darker Shade of Magic begins with the protagonist, Kell, stepping through from one world, and into another, while thinking about his coat. It’s a most unusual coat, and it’s one of Kell’s most prized possessions, not least because of how useful it is to him in the course of his job. For Kell is a Traveler, an Antari, capable of traversing the gates that separate the worlds, and his job involves taking messages between the rulers of the different Londons, cities that exist in the same place across the worlds, but which are very different in every iteration. There are three: Red London, which is his home, ruled by the Maresh Dynasty; Grey London, which is wreathed in smoke and smog and ruled by Mad King George; and White London, which is starving and half-dead and dangerous, ruled by the Dane twins. Once, there was a Black London, but it is long gone, and no one speaks of it, and so Kell does not go there.
However, Kell uses his job in pursuit of his own illicit hobby: collecting and smuggling items between the Londons. He’s very careful, though, and doesn’t take items that are truly dangerous, so he thinks he has everything under control. But when his hobby causes him to fall into a trap in White London, he seeks temporary refuge in Grey London. There, he is saved by a young woman named Lila Bard, who dreams of a life of adventure on the high seas, and wants nothing more than to escape the dreary existence she currently leads. From that point onwards, the two of them are forced to work together in order to survive—as well as ensure that the three remaining Londons don’t go the way of Black London.
One of the things I like most about this novel is the world-building. The concept of the four Londons, and of travel and contact between them, isn’t all that bad, as is the characterisation of each. Cities have their own character, after all, and Schwab is careful to ensure that each London has its own unique feel, and even layout. What might be an open square in Grey London, for instance, might be a wall in Red London, or a buried basement in White London. Because the geography is rarely the same from one London to the next, and might change at any given moment, a Traveler has to keep the distinct geography of each London in mind, to ensure that they don’t wind up someplace they can’t get out. It’s that sort of complication—to say nothing of being able to navigate the specific culture and society of each London—that makes the world as Schwab envisions is interesting.
It would be nice, however, to see each London developed more fully. Red London, in particular, looks like an interesting place, but the reader only sees one particular facet of it, even though more are implied: for instance, Kell hints at rebellion seething amongst the less privileged of the Red Londoners, and I think it would be an excellent main plot or side-plot to see that angle explored more fully. And then there is Grey London, and how magic—or the lack thereof—fits into the rest of the world as its built, especially since an absence of magic has led to the development of technology. Could Grey London technology be used in other Londons, for good or for evil? I think that’s another angle that could be explored in later novels, and I hope that’s something that happens.
The magic system is also interesting, at least from what the reader learns through Kell. However, I feel that it could have been developed a bit further, since it’s implied that in Red London, at least, anyone with the talent for it can use magic, depending on their specific elemental inclination, but aside from certain important characters and a handful of performers marching in a parade in the book’s latter third, no one else is shown actively using magic. In fact, it would be nice to see how the system works, especially since, throughout the book, Kell and other characters say that magic once linked all the worlds together. There is also something about the elemental system that reminds me of the Avatar TV series, sans the martial arts; I doubt that’s what Schwab intended. Hopefully that sense of similarity will be corrected in later books.
As for the characters, the true standout would have to be Lila. She’s very definitely headstrong, and hopeful in a way that I wish I myself could be most times. More importantly, she is unafraid to do what needs to be done, as long as it’s what she chooses to do. Reading about her makes me both happy and envious, because while I enjoy reading about her, I also rather envy her ability to just keep on going, never once losing sight of her goal. True, the means of accomplishing that goal might change, but the goal itself does not. I also rather like her matter-of-fact approach to death, and her equally matter-of-fact approach to killing, stealing, and crime in general. She accepts who she is, doesn’t see any point in being anyone other than herself, and the rest of the world will just have to learn to accept that. However, it would be nice to see some other facet of her personality besides the headstrong, devil-may-care thief with piratical aspirations—or at least, longer than the brief glimpses the reader gets at certain points in the novel. I think it would be interesting to see a colder, deadlier Lila, especially since she tends to treat killing in an offhand, practical manner.
Kell, on the other hand, is something else. He functions well enough as a protagonist, but functioning isn’t quite the same as being. Whereas Lila stands out on the page, Kell has a bit of a tendency to fade into the background. Were it not for his status as an Antari, and the fact that the reader learns about the rest of the worlds through his eyes, I don’t think he’d be particularly interesting. In fact, his brother, Rhy, sounds more interesting than him, and the reader only encounters Rhy briefly in the course of the novel.
As for the dynamic between Kell and Lila, I think it’s pretty enjoyable because of what Lila does to Kell, but I’m a bit leery about where their relationship will go. While I’m not entirely opposed to romantic subplots, I do think they can be overused, and have to be handled with extreme care if employed. I think this is especially true for Lila and Kell. I can see them as partners, as friends, but I can’t really find it in myself to see them as romantically involved with each other. I am aware that there are points throughout the novel that indicate the possibility of a romantic relationship, but I truly think they’d just destroy each other in the long run, if that were to happen—not least because of hints towards the very end of the novel that Rhy might be romantically interested in Lila, himself. I’m very tired of love triangles in fiction, so I really, truly hope that’s not where this is going, but I can only wait and see. I do have my fingers crossed, though.
The plot, in its turn, isn’t half-bad, though it does start out a bit slow as Schwab builds the worlds up enough for the reader to be able to make at least a bit of sense about them, before turning up the speed just before the novel’s midway point and letting things run from there. Without giving too much away, I do think the plot as a whole is quite fun: certain people die, certain other people live, and most of this happens in a way that isn’t entirely expected. In fact, it’s the plot that mostly makes up for Kell being rather uninteresting, since there’s a sense of things happening to him, as opposed to because of him, after one gets past a certain point in the novel. Lila is mostly immune to this, but she does fall into it from time to time. I also wish there was a somewhat more complicated subplot, something that could lead into the next novel, but that’s not the case here.
Overall, A Darker Shade of Magic is, in a word, fun. It has its problems—certain characters could have been better built; the world could have been explored a bit more; the plot could have been tweaked somewhat—but for the most part, it’s a fun read. It’s easy to get sucked into it, once things start to pick up, and it’s easy to get attached to the characters (or Lila, at least). It made me happy and excited while I was reading it, and it makes me hopeful that, in later books, the issues encountered in this one will be more or less resolved—and that certain