So I’ve been meaning to talk about V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. I know it’s got plenty of love behind it and its got its fair share of fans but I can’t for the life of me love this book and yes I mean only the first book because that’s as far as I read in the series. I have a similar relationship to this as I do Children of Blood by Tomi Adeyemi in that I completely understand why people like it, I just don’t.
I’m also going to give a trigger warning that I will be talking about sexual assault, violence, and general gore so if that makes you uncomfortable give this a skip. I’ll give a trigger warning again when I’m about to speak in-depth on the previously mentioned subjects. I will also warn you when I’m about to head into spoiler territory, though I won’t be going into particularly big spoilers.
For those of you that don’t know, A darker shade of Magic is the first book in the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by V. E. Schwab. It’s about three separate Londons, Red, White, and Grey. Red is the London with lots of magic, it’s the pretty and bougie London. White is a cesspit of violence with very little magic forcing its inhabitants to cling onto any magic they can for dear life. Their leaders are cruel and it’s not uncommon for them to be usurped. Generally to get ahead in White London you need to be vile. And Grey London is our world’s London roughly around the 1800s, since King George III is alive but very old and dying. So the conflict is about Black London, the fourth London that was cut off from the others because their magic consumed the people and the land. Kell an antari, a super magical person, is able to travel through the three londons and he ends up getting caught up in some big conspiracies and power grabs. Interesting premise right? I agree but the execution ehhh. Ok, let’s start first with the pros of the book.
Her style isn’t anything too extravagant. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s nowhere near bad. She’s got quite a few descriptions that really draw you in. Her opening lines are damn near perfect. “Kell wore a very peculiar coat, It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible” [pg 11]. It doesn’t reveal much but it sort of tosses this thread out there for you to follow into the larger narrative. It’s got almost a rhyming quality to it, a rhythm that you can feel yourself saying as you recite the lines aloud. It gives you just enough to keep you invested but not enough to reveal anything of importance. All of the writing in this book has a similar draw to it, it’s simple and intricate all at once and it’s very precise in what it’s trying to say. When Schwab describes something in the narrative, you can imagine it very clearly. Just listen to how she describes the marketplace. “The subtle scent of flowers was lot beneath the aroma of cooking meat and freshly cut fruit, heavy spices and mulled wine. A man in dark robes offered candied plums beside a woman selling scrying stones. A vendor poured steaming tea into short glass goblets across from another vibrant stall displaying masks and a third offering tiny vials of water drawn from the Isle, the contents still glowing faintly with its light…” [pg 45 and 46]. Overall Schwab knows her craft and it’s clear that she’s confident in her writing because she should be, she’s got the technical and stylistic aspect down to a tee.
The setting is amazing, but and there is a big but which includes minor spoilers so run away now if you want to read this book. I will say that it’s a good book, it’s just not a good book to me. If you’re into other world fantasies and cross-dimensional travel you’ll probably like this. I’m into that too but the problem is that this book has a lot of missed potential for me. So if the previously mentioned description sounds interesting or if the summary I gave sounds interesting to you, leave, go read the book and come back. If it doesn’t sound interesting or you don’t care about spoilers then I guess stick around if you want.
So the premise is amazing. These three different Londons that all exist in different dimensions that only a select few, two people to be exact, can travel to are vastly different from one another. Their landscapes, their people, their overall geography, it’s all completely different, the only overlapping aspects that they all have are their names and the two travelers that can move about their kingdoms, those two being Kell, one of our main characters and Holland, one of our main antagonists.
I think Red London is overall well done, Schwab captures it perfectly. A land of flowers and joy with obvious problems and tensions but out of the three London’s is clearly portrayed as the best. So I’ve got no qualms with that.
What I found upsetting though was White London and Grey London. For White London, it was this hellscape of a city that had so much room to be this horrible torturous place and Schwab touches on it, she grazes the surface of it ever so slightly but she never manages to hit the mark completely. When you tell me White London is a grimy and gross place filled with power-hungry bastards and bitches what’s to stop me from going “well isn’t that just normal London aka Grey London but with magic?” I needed more of White London, I needed more of that seedy underbelly to better contrast with Grey London. With Grey London, we see the horrors of the land through the character of Lila Bard who has a difficult life, who needs to survive on her own in this terrible place, no offense London. I think the best way to have fixed this was to have more focus on Holland, the character that was from White London. If we were to have three POVs from Holland, Kell, and Lila, instead of just Lila and Kell, this problem could be solved. It would convolute the story because of the twist about Holland and his involvement in trying to help the twin rulers of White London take over Red London but I feel like that’s an ok thing to lose in order to gain a better understanding of White London and have a more fleshed out narrative of all three kingdoms.
I hate these characters. Ok, that’s kind of a strong word, I don’t hate them. I don’t hate all of them at least. And I know plenty of people love and adore these characters, I’ve seen the artwork and the time and effort people put into these characters and it’s all amazing but I just do not get the hype. I didn’t like them.
See, my thing is that I hate characters that don’t reach, what I see as their true potential. Which is just a roundabout way of saying that I hate characters that are boring. I mean I can enjoy a badly written character as much as the next person but the thing is that a boring character is not enjoyable for anyone, especially when you see threads of a character and know that they can be something more. Now I haven’t read either of the other two books so maybe the characters are different there, I don’t know. All I know is that I either found the characters to be boring, cliche, or just annoying.
The first character to make this most egregious mistake on the part of being boring, would be none other than Kell. So Kell is the adopted Prince, the older brother of Rhy. He was taken away from his family at a young age and brought up in the palace because he was an Antari, which again is a super magical person that can travel through the different Londons and is an expert in various other types of magic, natural or otherwise. So Kell loves his brother and he has issues with his adoptive parents because he feels that they see him only as a tool. Now, this is good, this has potential. The problem here is that we never see moments of the King and Queen treating Kell badly and they don’t even need to necessarily treat him badly they just need to drop hints of how they clearly favor Rhy. And I didn’t see those hints. As far as I could tell, both boys were treated relatively equal, Kell had a lot more work on his plate but that was because he’s an Antari, he’s the only Antari. To really drive home that feeling of isolation and of Rhy being his only real family among the royals there needs to be more memories of their childhood where the King and Queen picked Rhy over Kell and it was because of them seeing Rhy as their real son and Kell as more of a soldier. There is also the issue of Lila just dismissing these feelings that Kell has about his family not loving him but we’ll get to that in a bit. All that aside, Kell just isn’t interesting. You could replace him with a cardboard cutout and I wouldn’t know the difference. He’s just not an engaging character, he’s got the threads of an engaging character but he himself is not one. Whenever I was back to his POV I didn’t know whether to groan out of boredom or to just be glad we weren’t in Lila’s head. I decided to go with the former because Lila is fun to hate, Kell is bread, he’s not even toast, he’s bread, soggy bread. Ok, that’s enough.
Now Lila, Oh Lila. How I despise thee. I get what Schwab was going for with this character. She was the badass cross-dressing thief lady that could cut you down. Lila is an orphan that had to fend for herself after her father basically tried to sell her off. She’s got a good introduction and it bleeds into some good first few chapters. Now warning I’m about to talk about sexual assault and just general violence so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read that. In one of the earlier chapters, Lila comes home, her home being a docked ship that she stays at. The ship is owned by an older man who she basically pays rent to. When she gets back, the guy, Powell, asks for his cut. He’s drunk out of his mind which is also not unusual for this character. When she says she doesn’t have anything to give him today, he responds by saying he can take something else from her, clearly implying sexual favors. So she straight up fucking murders Powell “Dead. Dead… and making a mess… She crouched, wiped her blade on Powell’s shirt, and recovered the silver from his pocket. And then she stepped over his body, retrieved the revolver from its drawer, and got dressed” [pg 69]. And then to cover her tracks, she sets his boat on fire and dips. “Lila stood on the dock and watched the Sea King burn. She stared up at it, face warmed by the fire that danced on her chin and cheeks the way the lamp light had before the constable.‘It’s a shame, she thought. She’d rather liked the rotting ship. But it wasn’t hers. No, hers would be much better” [pg 70]. Come on, tell me that’s not a great anti-hero introduction? Because it is.
That being said, the more time I, as a reader spent with Lila, the more I realized I hate her. I mean at least I felt something towards her, unlike Kell. So the first problem with Lila is that she is the epitome of “I’m not like other girls” Every chance she gets to put down anything girly or to put down other women she takes. Or, she just jumps at the chance of being called not like other girls. Which Kell often obliges in. And, this would be ok if it was criticized within the story, if it was properly examined why she feels this way, because there could be a lot of reasons, one of which could be that she realized behaving in a more aggressive or traditionally masculine way allowed her to have autonomy and allowed people to not talk down to her but to be afraid of her. There are a lot of ways in which this could go but it didn’t. And there’s nothing wrong with liking more traditionally masculine things, the problem is the way in which Lila clearly needs to put other women down in order to feel special about herself. I also mentioned earlier about my issue with how Lila undermines Kell’s feelings of his adoptive parents never really loving him and seeing him only as a tool. Again, this could have been played up a little more and Kell could have properly called her out instead of just being the meek bread he is and letting her essentially tell him that his emotional struggle doesn’t matter cause he’s rich. I get where Lila is coming from in this scenario and I do like that she treats him like that in terms of his emotions because it’s very telling of her own upbringing. The problem is that she very clearly makes it about herself and her problems. This could have worked better if she simply dismissed his feelings, got angry at him for basically swimming in cash, and then stopped there. We should have gotten an insight into her thoughts of why she feels this way or have it implied why she feels this way, rather than have her outright say it, because in this case, when she voices that and shifts everything back to herself it feels very purposeful and mean on her end rather than it just being her natural reaction. Instead of going “oh my life was terrible and way worse than yours” it would work better if she just called him a brat, told him to shut up, and then moved about her own business. That could also add a more interesting dynamic to these characters by having Kell be the emotional one and Lila be the one who Kell has to urge out of her shell by being the emotional support. It would be a role reversal of the traditional way most romances go, and again, I think Schwab was trying to do that, but the execution of it fell flat. My final gripe with this character is that she isn’t feral enough, and if Schwab had just made her more feral, this character would fit in perfectly. What I mean by feral is, exactly that honestly. She was too put together, too suave and cool and always knew what to say. If you’re gonna tell me this street urchin type orphan in 1800s London is cool and suave I’m gonna call bullshit cause no way this girl isn’t straight up feral and ready to bite someone’s nose off at the drop of a hat because that’s what she’s gotta do to survive. I just wish Schwab had gone down this route instead of the Lila we got, but oh well. It is what it is.
I’m only briefly going to talk about Rhy, Kell’s younger brother, because there isn’t too much I have to say about him and I feel like this is already long enough as is. Rhy is basically a cut and dry trope of the rich prince boy with a heart of gold. I love that archetype so I like Rhy, but to an extent. He seems to be only that trope and that’s it. There isn’t much more to him. Though he’s not as boring as Kell or as annoying as Lila so that’s a plus. I haven’t even talked about the twins that rule White London or Holland but again this is already too long, don’t need to make it longer and they also involve a lot of major spoilers that I don’t want to get into.
I know earlier that I said Schwab’s style of writing was very well done, that she clearly had a kind of rhythm for the writing itself, and I stand by that statement but the pacing is not good. It’s all over the place, it’s either too slow or too fast or just nonexistent. I’m going to use romance as an example of how the pacing is bad and I think you can tell that with a lot of books. If they have romance in them, which if we’re being real, they probably do, then the way in which the romance plays out can often be a good indicator of pace. The relationship is wonky so the pacing is wonky. To be honest, the relationship was something I didn’t buy. It went by too fast and when Lila kissed him it felt very robotic like they were just getting together because they were the breeding pair. They had no chemistry whatsoever even as friends. As friends, they were at least somewhat more tolerable, but like romantic partners, I just didn’t see it. The stilted romance was awkward and dumb and again, there was no chemistry, they were just shoved together because they were the only guy and girl and both had a POV. I don’t know the overall pacing was slow, and I don’t mind slow build-up books. One of my favorites, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is a very slow build-up book but it’s well done, it doesn’t drag. This book drags and the romance in it drags. When the pace picks up it’s like going a thousand miles an hour. When shit hit the fan in the book, I get that it was supposed to be fast-paced and tense but I was never tense while reading it I just kind of wanted the whole book to end so I didn’t have to keep slogging through it. I guess I just hoped that the ending would tie it all together and fix the pacing which is stupid on my part because that’s not at all what happened.
Well, that’s all I gotta say about it, I gave it three stars on GoodReads.
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