A Clever Shade of Magic: A Darker Shade of Magic Review
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The opening line to V. E. Schwab’s fantasy thriller A Darker Shade of Magic (Tor) is simple, straight forward, and  vivid.  It perfectly captures the style of the prose to follow.  It is not bogged down with convoluting or flourishing language meant to force a sense of the sublime and mystical down the reader’s throat. Instead, it shows that Schwab recognizes the proper technique required to really immerse the reader in a story and to fashion a suspension of disbelief that is not only willingly ventured into by the reader but also of their own construction.  Schwab recognizes the power a few good words can have if allowed to be built upon by the reader.

And here it is: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat” (Schwab 11).

This, immediately, is a breath of fresh air in a genre where it is far too easy to feel responsible for depicting a blockbuster sequence straight out of The Lord of the Rings movie franchise.  (I myself am guilty of not giving enough credit to my hypothetical readership, assuming they won’t get it unless I can find just the right string of adjectives/adverbs at each given moment.)  This is not to say that Schwab does not go on to explain why Kell’s coat is peculiar.  Instead, it illustrate the way in which words are never wasted where the imagination can do most of the work.  Even before Schwab details the many coats that make up Kell’s peculiar coat, each one produced by turning it inside out (11), she has already fashioned an expectation for the coat and allowed the imagination to run wild with it.  Each new detail coaxes your imagination further, steering it in the direction Schwab wishes you to go without demanding you come to a particular destination.

This technique ensures that the magic in A Darker Shade of Magic (henceforth ADSoM) maintains a certain distance.  With Kell as our protagonist and sole narrative link to the world of magic, it remains aloof and unachievable for us.  Kell may understand magic, being an Antari more closely in union with magic than anyone else from his world, but we are not.  He can explain it to us, even use clever metaphors to help illustrate it to us, but we can never feel the magic ourselves except through the words on the page.  In fact, when Kell attempts to explain the nature of ADSoM’s four worlds to Lila, the novel’s second protagonist, he uses a metaphor that is inarguably meta in nature.

‘The worlds are like pieces of paper[…]stacked one on top of the other[…]You have to move in order.’  [Kell] pinched a few pages between his fingers. ‘Grey London,’ he said, letting one fall back to the stack. ‘Red London.’ He let go of a second.  ‘White London.’  The third page fluttered as it fell.  ‘And Black.’  He let the rest of the pages fall back to the book (195).

Of course, as demonstrated in the above quote, there are rules.  And consistency.  This should go without saying because without it the narrative would dissolve into chaos.  ADSoM does not suffer from a lack of direction so much as it thrives on the confidence of it’s imagery.  Anything less than the succinct and clear prose Schwab uses would cause the whole enterprise to feel rough and poorly executed.  Square peg, circular hole.

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V. E. Schwab has written two YA novels now under this name (ADSoM and the stand-alone Vicious which I currently have on order from Chapters/Indigo) with a further six stories for children before that as Victoria Schwab.  Overall, her biography both online and at the back of ADSoM’s book-flap is scant when it comes to her personal life.  Instead, they focus on the noteworthy achievements of her first YA novel, Vicious.  Its accolades include Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013, one of Booklist’s Notable Reading List winners, the American Library Association Top Pick for 2014, and the rights being purchased for a film adaptation back in 2013.  Found on Twitter as @veschwab she self-identifies as “Traveler. Baker. Author for Tor, Harper, Scholastic, Disney*Hyperion” and someone who “Thrives on tears.”  Her first children’s novel, The Near Witch, was published in 2011 and, based on a tweet from March 10th, she is currently working on revisions for the seventh story she will have published in five years.  The tweet includes a picture of a document the only words: “One” written in large font and, below that, “Prince At Large.”

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There are four Londons.  But really, only three.  Grey London, Red London, and White London.  Forget about that Black London.  Yeah, that’s never going to come up.

ADSoM is structured around fourteen parts and is wonderfully paced.  While Kell’s coat might be the major magical object or, to use a term from the novel itself, though one never directly applied to the coat, major fixed point of the novel it is not the object from which the novel’s main source of conflict originates.  Highly reminiscent of Sauron’s One Ring, Kell finds himself tricked into possessing a deadly artifact of Black London. (Woops!  Guess it was going to come up after all.)  What makes the talisman so dangerous is that it is pure magic capable of breaking “the golden rule of magic[…]that it couldn’t be created” (126).  As Kell further elaborates, “It interpreted.  It created” (126).  These words, rendered here in italics for emphasis, are as they appear in the manuscript.  The use of emphasis does not appear infrequently, and often lends the feeling of an oral tale to the novel, here used to great effect.  There is an urgency to the reveal of the stones power even as the full breadth of its capabilities remains obscured to us, the non-magical readers.

Later, Kell explains to Lila the balance of magic in the worlds.  The stone is “pure potential, pure power, pure magic[…]And no humanity[…]No harmony” (193).  It takes almost half of the novel for the talisman, and the corresponding conflict that arises from its presence in Kell’s life, to take shape.  But this is crucial to the narrative.  Rather than thrust our two protagonists into the heat of things and world-build as things move along, Schwab ensures that when Kell emphasizes “No, obviously not every relic [of Black London] was destroyed” (192) that emphasis is justified.  We have characters, relationships, cultures, and a political complexity between three Londons divulged to us already.  Thus, when the plot picks up speed, driving Lila and Kell to travel through the three Londons to return the talisman to its origin world, the reader does not need to scramble to find purchase.  The stakes aren’t high just because Kell says “you have no idea what you’re getting into” (196) but because we’ve seen the face of these worlds and the characters who populate them.  Schwab has nurtured our connection to these worlds and their people just long enough to set them ablaze.  This begins with the perfect characterization of the three Londons and then spreads to the individuals who populate each one.  

To demonstrate, the novel opens with Kell’s arrival in Grey London as part of his main Antari duty: delivering mail.  Albeit, delivering mail to royalty.  Grey London’s monarch, King George, is old and, quite literally, decaying.  He is blind, gnarled, and desperate to feel some sense of connection to the magical realm of Red London next door (14-18).  The year is set as 1819 and the description of King George seems to line up perfectly with poet Percy Shelly’s depiction of him in the sonnet 'England in 1819': “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying” (poetryfoundation.com). Grey London’s head of state, not truly a character in his own right so much as a representation of the world, reflects the desperate and subconscious yearning of the world for the magic it has lost touch with.  On a bridge crossing the Thames, Kell reaches out and stills the flowing water to contemplate his own reflection.  This moment is interrupted by “a tinkling laugh[…]followed by a grunt, and a few other, less distinctive noises” (Schwab 24).  Kell tells us that Grey London smells like “smoke” (14).  But, also, that:

[…]despite the city’s soot and dirt, its clutter and its poor, it had something Red London lacked: a resistance to change.  An appreciation for the enduring, and the effort it took to make something so (25).

Despite its name, Grey London is painted for us in broad strokes in the same manner as Kell’s coat.  We are given the details and left to fill in gaps with our imagination, to populate the space as it is presented. When Kell sees Westminster Abbey he admits he “had a fondness for the abbey, and he nodded to it, as if to an old friend” (25-26).  Thus, the city becomes a character.

The same process is repeated for Red London and White London as Kell returns home and then must eventually deliver a new letter to the monarchs of White London.  Schwab plays with the negative space of her worlds.  Kell knows little about what exists outside of the various Londons of the neighbouring worlds but knows each London intimately.  His simple designations for each city begin crafting the picture before the narrative ever gives the reader a glimpse of those worlds.  Their titles are not official, merely a code Kell concocts for himself: “Grey for the magic-less city.  Red, for the healthy empire.  White, for the starving world” (15).  But, as with all good characters, each London experiences character development.  Appearance and reality are tested here and the cities are marked with history and motives that are at play throughout the story.  Overall, it makes the worlds feel alive and distinct, a great boon to the story considering that it is not the only YA multiple-reality fantasy thriller to come out in the last few months.  ADSoM’s multi-world adventure feels like it has real living worlds, unlike A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray where (with the exception of her pre-Industrial Revolution Russian Monarchy reality) none of the worlds ever seem to get out of their infancy and become real characters.  Neither does the novel’s main draw, a multi-dimensional thriller, suffer from a crammed and rushed introduction to its multiple dimensions as it attempts to hurl headlong and self-destructively into action, action, action!

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ADSoM features a duo-protagonist plot line centring around Kell and Lila, the amnesiac-magician and the thief with aspirations to become a pirate, respectively.  But the three worlds are populated with a slew of unique characters, though often rather cliché archetypes.  There’s the owner of the Grey London’s Stone’s Throw (a bar that appears in the same place in each world, though by different names) who embodies the enduring qualities of Grey London.  There’s Rhy, the veritable prince charming of Red London who is also Kell’s deepest friend.  Counterpart to Kell is the enslaved Antari from White London, Holland, as well as White London’s twin rulers, Astrid and Astor.

Kell, sadly, suffers from a terrible affliction: Jason Bourne disease.  We learn very quickly that he does not remember his childhood before becoming the royal messenger for Red London.  He is a bit narcissistic.  During his two moments alone in Grey London he examines his reflection, first in a mirror while adjusting his coat (12) and the second time after using magic to stop the movement of the Thames to turn it into a giant mirror (24).  But Kell is a deeply unhappy man, we learn.  He trades and smuggles items back to Red London from both Grey and White London, an illegal act.  When confronted about it by Rhy he confesses that he feels “more like a possession than a prince” (52).  Ironically, Kell is one of only two people in the three Londons capable of moving between worlds.  Instead of giving him a kind of freedom he feels it makes him a prisoner.  He knows little about the worlds outside of the three Londons.  Though he considers Red London his home he constantly struggles to feel like he belongs.  Upon being recognized in the streets of Red London “Kell wanted only to disappear” (47).  He is arrogant and charming, chastising the Prince Regent of Grey London with the story of Black London’s corruption (23).  But he is also lonely and loyal, telling Rhy “there’s no place I’d rather be [than by your side]” which the text then promptly informs us “was the truth” (53).  Both Kell and his relationship to those around him and the worlds he travels through is nuanced.  There are as many flaws above and below the surface as there are sympathetic aspects of his character to string the whole web together.  He is mysterious and charming, but we know that his pattern of behaviour, which we get to read about firsthand, is bound to get him into trouble.  There are few hooks for a character as great as the suspenseful anticipation of their actions spelling their own doom.

Lila works to make a living in Grey London as a thief.  Disguised as a man she steals from the rich in their own communities.  She reflects:

The rich strutted around, assuming they’d be safe, so long as they stayed in the good parts of town.  But Lila knew there were no good parts.  Only smart parts and stupid parts, and she was quick enough to know which one to play (63).

Her ultimate goal in life is to acquire enough coin to buy a sea worthy ship because “Lila Bard knew in her bones that she was meant to be a pirate” (64).  But this goal seems firmly out of her reach due mostly to her inability to accept hospitality.  She vows repeatedly to either not accept anything from Barron or to pay him back for everything he gives her, even though he gives it freely.  Lila may be a thief but it seems that unless she can steal it, and thus earn it, she doesn’t want it.  Much like Kell, Lila views herself as a prisoner despite what she has at hand.  The true freedom she seeks can only be acquired through “adventure” (65).  And as she flirts with being caught by a night watchmen (61-63) or she chases after street rats who rob a beggar (118-119) she constantly guides herself towards danger and the adventure she associates with such activities.  So, it should come as no surprise that she gets tangled up in Kell’s misadventure with the Black London talisman largely due to her own actions.  Sure-footed, clever, stubborn, and able to handle herself, she is the perfect non-magical balance to Kell.  If Kell and the talisman are Frodo and the Ring then Lila is Sam, only she threatens Kell’s bodily parts with harm far more often.  And causing bodily harm is of no consequence to Lila.  While Kell may have his coat, Lila has her pistol, christened Caster, and a slew of knives she keeps on her person at all times.  She is dangerous if she wants to be.

The rest of the cast of characters follows pretty closely along the lines of the standard archetypes.  Of particular note is Holland, the novel’s main antagonistic presence (if one does not count the Black London talisman, which isn’t to suggest that you should), whose villainy proves complicated.  His character is not without sympathetic moments.  The relationship between Kell and Holland is never explored as thoroughly as Lila and Kell on paper but it nevertheless has a presence throughout the novel.  Being the only other living Atari, Kell holds Holland in a particular light.  While he may look in mirrors and the Thames to see his reflection as it is, he looks at Holland to see his reflection as it might have been.  Their histories and current struggles criss-cross in a number of subtle and thematically resonant ways.  To see these differences and similarities, to unpack the complex nature of their relationship, one has to pay attention and look at the patterns.  Schwab avoids a ham-fisted approach to thematic resonance and drawing parallels between her characters, which is much-appreciated.  (Of course, as I have already hinted at, plenty of these parallels can also be drawn between Lila and Kell, one simply has to look.)  The novel wants you to engage with it actively, encourages you to look at what is happening and what the characters are saying.  Not everything in this world of magic is as it appears and, often, not everything is said that is there to see.

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It takes almost 200 pages to reach the moment when Lila and Kell both receive their (more obvious) call to adventure.  Together in Lila’s room at the Stone’s Throw, the pub that appears in all worlds, the adventure Lila has been seeking takes shape.

‘[…]an Antari needs two things to make a door: the first is blood, the second is a token from the place they want to go.  And as I told you, the tokens were all destroyed.’

Lila’s eyes widened. ‘But the stone is a token.’

‘The stone is a token,’ echoed Kell (194-195).

Despite the wait, when the moment finally does arise that unites Kell and Lila in purpose and sets them off on a quest to return the Black London talisman to its place of origin, it does not feel like a long time.  It feels like the inevitable result of what has transpired up to this point.  It is an adventure that tumbled out of the circumstances of Kell’s life and the adventure that Lila has been yearning/waiting for.  Each step along the way is earned and measured.  Tension builds until the final confrontation, written in the expected crisp and vivid detail.  It is reminiscent of a bender duel from Avatar: the Last Airbender, a true compliment in my opinion.  Action moments are written in the same precise diction and render themselves to an imagination already groomed for the purpose.  Not every mystery is resolved, but it isn’t the kind of unresolved itch that exists annoyingly at the back of your mind after watching something written by Damon Lindelof.  And the novels ending, Schwab’s twitter, and Goodreads all suggest a second and a third book in the works.  Until then we have A Darker Shade of Magic, a clever novel with clever characters.  “The wall gave way, and the traveler and the thief stepped forward and through” (206).

-RHC

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Works Cited

Melnick, Lynn et al. ‘England in 1819 by Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Poetry Foundation’. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174385>.

Schwab, V E. A Darker Shade of Magic. United States: Tor Books, 2015. Print.