I don’t read a lot of fantasy. Sure, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That’s about 95% of it right there, the remainder being short stories or books I’m not recalling at the moment. I’ve seen more fantasy movies–they’re quicker to consume–but generally while I am aware of most of the cliches, stereotypes, tropes and such of fantasy, I am not well-read on the genre.
This is my way of saying my opinion of A Darker Shade of Magic may come across as naive, or uninformed or kind of dumb. Because when it comes to fantasy I am kind of dumb.
Still, I’ll start by saying my strongest criticism of the book was its occasional lapse into twee language, passages where the author’s voice intrudes by phrasing something in a way that draws attention to the narrator. This can work if the entire novel is presented as a story being told by an unseen narrator (Mr. Norell and Jonathan Strange comes to mind in this regard–and hey, that’s another fantasy novel I read) but here it pops up only a few times, so it draws unnecessary attention. This is a very minor criticism, though.
Another mild criticism is how it feels like some of the character development happens very slowly, perhaps because this is the first book of a series, so by the end of the book it only feels like some parts of the story are getting started. The character of Lila is the best example of this, a cutpurse with grand plans for adventure and little care for anyone else who only just starts to show a more human side by the end of the story.
The story itself presents a plot with far-reaching implications–the fates of three parallel versions of Victorian-era London are at stake–but feels intimate because it focuses on a small number of characters, primarily the two Antari (powerful wielders of magic), the good-but-somewhat-naughty Kell of Red London, and Holland, the bad and beholden servant to the throne of the amoral White London, along with the aforementioned Lila Bard and assorted kings, queens and a royal brother.
The world building is likely to draw in a lot of readers, as Schwab does a fine job of laying out the different versions of London and how they and the magic within each, operates. Into this comes Kell, whose habit of trading trinkets from the different Londons, using blood magic that allow him as an Antari, to slip between the worlds while few if any others can, ends up with him coming into possession of something Very Bad from Black London. Black London, as you might guess, is also Very Bad and is sealed off from the other Londons to prevent its corrupt magic from spreading and possibly destroying the other three versions of the city.
There is a lot of vicious magic, swinging of swords and the occasional report of gunfire at play as things speed toward an increasingly bloody conclusion. While the story does achieve a certain level of closure, it’s still obvious by the end that there is more to come.
Why do I keep swearing off series and then find myself reading them? I’m not yet sure if I will read the follow-up to A Darker Shade of Magic, but I’m reasonably certain that anyone not entirely tired of stories set in Victorian London will find the story here a brisk and entertaining read. While there are few surprises, there are many small pleasures to be had, whether it be the exchanges between characters who won’t dare admit they like each other, to the showy displays of mages fighting, using wits and, sometimes, anything they can get their hands on.