Back in the 1980s when I began to read fantasy novels in earnest, I liked the idea of multiple volumes –usually three, but longer ones were fine- those tales, however, were usually compact in size; no thousand page tomes per book, another words. I liked that format a lot, but over the decades, trilogies have expanded into ongoing series of seven to twelve (or more) books, each carrying anywhere from 800 pages to nearly a thousand. And I’ve found that longer does not necessarily mean better. They may be richer in depth and world building, but I’ve found that writers have become so obsessed with the detail, that they’ve forgotten to move their story along.
One thing that I like about V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is the book moves swiftly. She is able to do her world building in an efficient and understandable way, without getting caught in the ennui, the detail of details that have stopped me from reading Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, and Diana Gabaldon. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people think this is impressive, and it is, but I don’t have the time or the inclination anymore to read books that need flow charts to keep tabs on characters and their adventures.
The unique premise has four London’s living parallel to each other. There is grey London, one under the rule of George III, white London, red London, and they mysterious and destroyed, black London. Kell is an Antari, one of the magicians who can travel between these worlds. Now grey London (our world) does not have much magic and most people have forgotten magic even existed. Red London, the world in which Kell is bound to, is a place full of magic, where people exist in balance with it. White London is where magic is dying, and where those who live there and wield it, are willing to do anything to get control of more magic, even trying to open the doorway to black London. But Kell knows this will destroy everything if that doorway is re-opened.
As one of the last of his kind, Kell tries to keep all three remaining London’s in balance (with great power comes great responsibilities danced through my mind a lot reading this book) and implies that King George III (the mad king) knows of the existence of the other London’s and this could be the reason he was a bit off his rocker. Kell is also willing to smuggle items between worlds, which is how he eventually bumps into Delilah Bard, a women with lofty aspirations. Lila is what they once called back then, a highway man. Or in this case a highway woman, essentially a thief and a pickpocket. And when these two people meet, our heroine picks the pocket of Kell, stealing one half of a magical stone, an artifact from black London (shades of the One Ring here). And that begins an adventure that leads to being chased by all means of magic and those bent on obtaining the stone that can give them unlimited power.
While a lot goes on over 400 pages, the Schwab does not go much into the background of either Kell or Lila, though she drops enough information to make me want to know more. As characters, Lila is much more interesting than Kell, and there were at times where I wished the book was more about her. And Kell comes off a bit naïve; he has lived in luxury with the royal family of red London (so much so, he’s seen as the son and brother of the royals) and lacks the ability to see that others have to struggle to make ends meet. He also, strangely, seems oblivious to politics of power that exists between these three remaining London’s and lacks any diplomatic skills.
Perhaps, because of the influence of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, we also get a glimpse of the ruthless rulers of white London, run by the twins Astrid and Athos Dane. Both crave power and are willing to destroy everything, kill everything in their way to do it. They are stereotypes, paper tiger villains that are pretty dumb. I mean there is no style to them, no grey area so to speak of; they’re one dimensional and, in the end, weak, so their threat to balance of magic is never really believable.
Again, Lila is a fun character and may be the only reason I continue reading the series. But it moves swiftly, and that is also a key reason to follow up with the sequel. I just hope that Lila figures out a way to dump Kell.