Victoria Schwab’s 2013 adult debut Vicious was without a doubt one of the best novels I’d read that year. In fact, if I’d read it last year, it would have been on my best-of list last year as well. It was that good. When I found out she was working on another adult novel, it was pretty difficult to contain my excitement. Then began the long wait for more information on the book. Soon there was a title: A Darker Shade of Magic, followed shortly by a stunning cover by Will Staehle, and come summer, I happened to be an intern at Tor when the first round of galleys came in. When it comes to early galleys, I try to wait until at least a month or two prior to release to read them. But there’s no waiting when the galley comes from an author of Schwab’s caliber.
Kell is Antari, a blood-mage Traveler who can jump between parallel Londons of very different atmospheres. We’ve got Grey London, where magic is nonexistent and not much happens. In Red London, magic and its practitioners are held in high esteem, full of life and activity. White London is its color because magic has sapped the life from the city itself, and it reflects upon its inhabitants and especially upon its rulers, who are some of the most chilling villains I’ve ever come across. Black London is a fallen city, destroyed by magic, only spoken of in hushed tones by those daring enough to discover how it fell.
Kell is also the adopted prince and royal messenger of Red London. He also dabbles in smuggling trinkets and baubles from one London or another for those wealthy and audacious enough to break the law. Naturally, a routine smuggling run gets him in way over his head, and he meets Delilah Bard, who subsequently both robs him and saves his life in a flurry of heart-pounding events.
Extensive worldbuilding is becoming a more common practice in modern fantasy, and usually it entails brand new worlds with new cities, landscapes, and names to learn. Schwab’s A Darker Shade is limited (in a very loose sense of the word) to the city of London and its parallels. Each London has a very distinct feel: in Grey you almost feel the boredom of the city, whereas in Red you can feel the vibrancy, White the oppression, and Black the fear.
If there’s one thing you can be confident of when beginning a Schwab novel, it’s that the characters will be fantastic. From the protagonists in Kell and Lila to antagonists in Astrid and Athos Dane, they’re all multi-faceted and strong in their own ways. Kell’s personality is in some ways part the young mage archetype, but in other ways he’s definitely not.
“Kell might have cut him some slack, but men who waded into waters claiming they could swim should not need a raft.”
He can be confident, but he knows when his opponent is better than him and he’s sort of an inward-leaning character, not necessarily keen to share his thoughts. This is where Lila comes in. There’s a feeling around that a strong female character is simply someone capable of feats of strength, or more often just capable of killing. It’s a very literal stance, and not one I agree with. Certainly it can be part of what makes a female character strong, but what makes one strong is so much more than killing on equal ground with men or anything like that. It takes the same thing as a strong male character: characters should be like onions, with layers and layers of personality. Lila is just that. She’s bold, energetic, and incredibly ambitious. She’s the perfect yin to Kell’s yang. Sure, she can hold her own in a fight as she demonstrates when she handily mugs Kell, but it’s her personality that makes her such a good character. In opposition to Kell and Lila are the rulers of White London, the Danes, and my blood went cold whenever they appeared. They’re that well written.
Strong, confident prose, awesome protagonists, chilling antagonists, and wonderful parallel worlds coalesce in the short, concise chapters that Schwab writes so well. As with Vicious, I was up all night telling myself “just one more chapter” and, come the end of the story, I craved more and was elated to find that A Darker Shade was but the first in a series. If you’re not reading Victoria Schwab I don’t know what you’re doing.
A Dark Shade of Magic is out on Tuesday, February 24 2015 from Tor.