Dive into the intrigue of A Darker Shade of Magic

Alexis Yi, page editor

Magic, thievery, and parallel universes. In this 2015 fantasy novel by V. E. Schwab, fresh characters and a tightly-wound plot make for a quick, satisfying read. 

In the world of A Darker Shade of Magic, four different Londons exist, each with varying amounts of magic. There is  Red London, healthy and vibrant, with an abundance of magical ability; Grey London, the magic-deprived London of our world; White London, the dying London; and Black London, which was sealed off from the others after being consumed by uncontrolled magic. Travelling between these Londons is the young magician Kell, a royal messenger for Red London who uses his job to smuggle trinkets and paraphernalia. When Kell inadvertently brings over a dangerous artifact from Black London—a realm thought to be inaccessible—he threatens the tentative balance between the realms and risks the existence of everything he knows. 

The story is slow to start since Schwab uses the early chapters to introduce the Londons and to develop the two main characters: Kell, the messenger, and Lila Bard, a pickpocket from Grey London. Kell, meticulous and conscientious, and Lila, impulsive and independent, are charming and original characters whose perspectives are delightful to read. The supporting cast is equally well-developed and the relationships between the characters are nuanced and believable. 

Once the characters are established, we enter the actual plotline, which is simple but suspenseful. Schwab pulls off twists that defy cliché and expectation without sacrificing clarity or momentum. By the end of the first third of the novel, the plot drives itself.

Detailed prose provides for an immediate sense of place, but there is little to be known about the broader worlds beyond each of the individual Londons. The characters are only ever in the four Londons, and there are no mentions of places beyond each of the cities’ borders. Within the Londons themselves, the politics and social dynamics are not explored beyond the bare minimum for the plotline, which minimizes a setting that could be vast and intricate. 

Although lacking in world-building, A Darker Shade of Magic delivers phenomenally on writing style, plot, and character development. It’s an excellent fantasy novel for those who don’t want to memorize complicated political systems or social structures in order to understand the story.