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A Review of V. E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

“You know so little of war. Battles may be fought from the outside in, but wars are won from the inside out.”

― V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic


Mild spoiler warning: I try to avoid major plot spoilers in my reviews, but there will be references to story events and characters.

Fantasy is my go-to escape. It has been since I was a little girl, snuggled up on the ratty couch in my childhood home's computer room with copies of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and various compendiums of fairy tales, lost for hours to the lands where brightly colored lights are more than fireworks in the sky and a person's surroundings can be manipulated by more than words and physical tools.

Even in adulthood, I'm constantly immersing myself in worlds of witches and wizards and centaurs and griffons in the places they hide in plain sight. I am a firm believer that magic exists in our world in smaller ways, in the prettiness of the sunlight in the morning and stars across the night sky and in the way a person can be your home, but there will always be a part of me that yearns for the kind of magic that runs in your blood and rings in your bones, letting you fundamentally change the world around you with the snap of your fingers.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab, dives fully into that world of bone-deep magic, and uses it as a central point to revolve the story around. It follows Kell, an Antari, or rare magician with the power of a lost world running through his veins, as he finds a relic of that world. He is made of its magic, but it is generational, and this strange stone is direct...and it shouldn't exist. There is a reason that its world is lost, and if Kell can't act fast enough, then his world will be lost as well.

Kell's worlds are beautiful, and as much a part of the story as the characters who populate them. I am in love with V. E. Schwab's Four Londons and the strangeness of each of them.

I have walked Grey London's streets in the modern world, the London devoid of magic that resides on our side of the Doors, and so I could imagine Kell's steps on the uneven cobblestones and Lila's thievery in the close alleys that have stood there since the days these characters could have roamed.

Digressing from the scenery for a moment, Lila is the kind of character I always wished I could have been. She's a swashbuckling aspiring pirate, who carries herself with a roguish charm that never betrays the insecurities lying just beneath the flowing cloak and many blades. Her progress from wanton adventurer to solid, competent co-conspirator is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and cannot wait to see progress.

With the blueprint of Grey London in my mind, I can imagine Kell's London. Red London. I love it so much, for its shining Isle where my familiar Themes runs today, and its shady street corners full of hustlers and darkness in an otherwise bright city. I love the idea of a magical masquerade full of floating lights and shining princes with sinister smiles, and of hidden rooms in sacred temples that hide fugitives from other worlds. It's a city that truly makes Grey London feel as if it's fulfilling its name, and I cannot help but empathize with Lila's shock and awe and need to explore it all.

White London, in stark contrast, terrifies me. It is the kind of magic that I have always feared in these stories, the magic that doesn't just settle in the bones, but pulls them and twists them into something unrecognizable. The Danes, its power-hungry leaders, and Holland, the dark mirror of Kell, show off the side of human nature that we don't like to acknowledge, the part that longs for a way to stand over and above all others, to be the ruler of our world so that we can shape it into whatever image suits our needs. It's the kind of greed that we don't like to acknowledge in ourselves, beautifully exemplified in characters that we love to hate and fully understand, demystifying them in a way that isn't sympathetic.

And of course, I am terribly intrigued by the fleeting, flirting mentions made of Black London. It's a classic fallen city, and we get the story of its defeat so early on yet we're still left wondering, pulled into the mystery of this relic that shouldn't exist, and yet is in our Kell's hands. We root for its destruction to protect the Red London we grow to love, but at the same time, we share Kell's need to know more and explore its possibilities. During the climactic fight of the book (or one of them...), I was enthralled with the stone's involvement and the way that it manifested into something that was so much more, and so very sinister. I'm curious to see how that manifestation plays into the stories of the next installments because I'm sure that it is not entirely gone.

I am in love with this series already, as I knew I would be from the moment I glanced at its synopsis in a bookstore, ages ago, and I'm so say that it took me so long to get to it. Schwab is a genius whose writing style is the kind of poetic prose I adore and aim to achieve in my own work. I'm excited to read more of her work. In fact, I have been lucky enough to get access to a review copy of her latest work, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I'm only three chapters in and already in love.

Victoria, please continue to write the beautiful things you do. Your words are as magical as the worlds you create.

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