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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. SchwabThree stars
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Fantasy, to state the obvious, is a genre that attaches great importance to complex and imaginative world-building. In A Darker Shade of Magic, Victoria Schwab launches a trilogy featuring a world — or more accurately, worlds — so dazzling that they help elevate the rather tropey plot saddled to them. Four parallel worlds connect at the city of London, each one magical to greater or lesser degrees. Grey London corresponds to our own world. Red London, the next universe over, is located in a nation called Arnes, where the Thames itself is a roiling, crimson source of magic from which most citizens can draw at least some spellcasting ability. This is followed by White London, a harsh and colorless world where magic is a nearly-depleted natural resource. Finally, Black London, an apocalyptic hellhole that allowed itself to be consumed and destroyed by its insatiable greed for magic.

Kell is a member of the Antari, a dwindling race of people with magic so deep in their blood that their left eyes are completely black. Only the Antari have the capacity to cross between worlds. Kell works for the Arnesian royal family in Red London as a liaison between their world and the rulers of White and Grey London. No one ever goes to Black London, which is essentially a magical Chernobyl.

Kell is part adopted son, part indentured servant to Red London’s king and queen. He is fond of his family, especially his adopted brother, Prince Rhy. But he chafes against the restrictions on his freedom and the combination of awe and terror with which he’s viewed by the people. And so he rebels, in a small way, through a side business in smuggling, transporting magical contraband to collectors in Grey London.

Schwab’s smartest trick here is in constructing believable rules of magic for her parallel worlds while at the same time stripping magic of the romanticism most fantasy fiction attaches to it. Spellcasting is a painful process requiring blood, and Kell’s arms are crisscrossed with scabs and scars from all the times he has to cut himself to cross between worlds. There’s a good early scene in which a bemused Kell meets a naive young mundane from Grey London whose head is full of idealized dreams of magic. Following the poor kid’s hapless attempts at the smallest spellcasting, the message is clear: you have no idea what this is all about, and you’re too much of a dreamer to realize you’re better off.

Lila Bard is the story’s other protagonist, a 19 year old Grey London street thief who is, all things considered, less morally compromised and inconsistent a character than Kell. She aspires to become a pirate with her very own ship, and why shouldn’t she, since she’s never known the “respectable” life and has little reason to respect it, given how easy such people have been for her to fool and rob. She isn’t a bad person, simply someone who’s been dealt a specific hand in life and is doing what is necessary for her to survive. But she values loyalty, and she’s someone who doesn’t waver once she’s committed herself to a decision.

With Schwab taking such an unhurried approach in her setup, we’re fully a quarter of the way through the book before the plot kicks into gear, and halfway through before Kell and Lila team up. Kell is sent on an errand to White London to deliver royal correspondence to the twin rulers, Athos and Astrid Dane, two of the most hissably arch arch-villains you’re likely to encounter this side of a Marvel movie. The Danes’ own Antari courier, Holland, enslaved to them through a magical bond, could be a respected colleague to Kell if circumstances hadn’t made him a powerful nemesis. It is while on this mission that Kell is slipped a magical artifact of deeply destructive power and tricked into transporting it across to Red London. Now fleeing for his life between the worlds, where a detour into Grey London pulls Lila into the unfolding crisis, the book charges into its second half in a breathless flurry of action.

Taken on its own terms, the plot is boilerplate stuff: you got a magic item, the bad guys want it, and the good guys have to keep it from their clutches. But Schwab has devoted the effort to creating terrific settings for us to immerse ourselves in, and her prose is a model of clarity, even if, on a few occasions, the plot is helped on its way by some convenient coincidences. Attention to detail is deftly handled without causing narrative clutter. White London, we learn, has good reasons to hate Red London, even if the actions of the Danes are reprehensible all the same. And though you’d never lump Schwab in with the grimdark crowd, she knows how to keep her story’s stakes high, her pacing tense, and how to deliver some hurt when it really counts. A Darker Shade of Magic may only work as a handsomely crafted escapist romp, but it never expects to be considered more than that. Settle in and enjoy a fresh take on the color of magic.

Followed by A Gathering of Shadows.