What if there were multiple Londons? Four vastly different but parallel cities existing simultaneously in the same location? A Grey London, dark and dirty, ruled by a mad king and almost completely devoid of magic. A Red London, bright and beautiful, where a benevolent monarchy rules over a flourishing, magic-infused empire. A White London, where the throne is attained through treachery and dominance, and the populace struggles to control a form of magic that is as rebellious and untrustworthy as they are. And a Black London, source of the most powerful--and unpredictable--magic, lost to the other Londons for generations.
Kell is an Antari, a traveler. He is one of the few with the ability to travel between the Londons. Officially, Kell delivers the monthly communications between the different aristocracies. Unofficially, Kell also smuggles small items between worlds for the fascinated few who will pay handsomely for a glimpse into a world they will never see. It’s one of those unofficial tasks that has stranded Kell in Grey London, and left him at the mercy of a pickpocket named Lila Bard. Lila has stolen from him, saved his life, and now demands to be taken to one of the other Londons. She’s looking for adventure, while Kell just wants to go home. But what neither of them knows is that the events that brought them together have put all of the Londons in terrible danger.
In A darker shade of magic, V.E. Schwab, author of last year’s marvelous Vicious, spins a tale of not two, but four cities, and the man who can travel between them. The idea of multiple Londons is a fascinating one, and Schwab creates a series of distinct and interesting cities based on the familiar theme. The characters are wonderfully drawn, recognizable, believable, and likable. The character of Lila Bard is particularly noteworthy. It is rare in SF/F books to find such a strong and well-defined female character. Schwab has infused Bard with strength, will, a sharp tongue, and a wicked sense of humor, while refusing to sacrifice the character’s vulnerability and empathy. Lila is clearly the equal of the book’s other protagonist Kell. But while Lila and Kell are equals, they are also opposites in many ways: female/male, thief/royal, magic/non-magic, respectively. They are almost opposing mirror images of each other, but they both ultimately long for the same thing: freedom. The result is a pair who will appeal to readers regardless of their age, gender or background.
More important, A darker shade of magic is just an awful lot of fun! While the threats to London (all of the Londons, in fact) are clear and evident, Schwab is able to keep the book an exciting and enjoyable swashbuckling adventure. Like Vicious before it, this novel has an undeniable cinematic quality to the writing, and would make a marvelous film (if Schwab’s work was translated intact in the production process). A darker shade of magic is a wonderful read, and it's impossible not to wonder where V.E. Schwab will take her readers next!
Here is a recent interview with V. E. Schwab.