Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab


title:  A Darker Shade of Magic

author:  Victoria Schwab

pages: 390

format: Hardcover 

isbn/asin: 978-0765376459

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Neverwhere or Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Deep Magic by Diana Wynne Jones, or other tongue-in-cheek fantasy epics.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes!  Already have a few of her books on my shelf.   
will i continue the series?:  Not sure if there is one.  Almost want one, maybe around new characters so it doesn't ruin the nice ending.  

My Ratings Explained

Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London - but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her 'proper adventure'.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped.

the basics
Color me unsurprised: V.E. Schwab has killed it again.  Her trifecta of the quirky young adult The Archived, trope-breaking Vicious, and A Darker Shade of Magic has firmly cemented her as a new go-to author for innovative, tongue-in-cheek fantasy.  ADSM tackles world-hopping Britishy fantasy with all the charm of Neil Gaiman and the quirk of Diana Wynne Jones--with a style that is unmistakably Schwab.  Centered on four Londons in four parallel universes and the mysterious travelers who go between them, ADSM offers an ambitiously sweeping tale fraught with adventure, magic, and unexpected twists.  Kell and Lila are perfect guides in this adventure, the former charmingly irritable and the latter frenetically impulsive.  Despite a few plot hitches and belabored scenes, ADSM prevails through its flawed, lovable characters, innovative magic, and breakneck plotting.  The perfect read for anyone craving an adventure.  

plot . 4/5
The novel begins rather innocuously, with Kell the sorcerer sneaking between Londons and silkily hawking his other-worldly wares.  An ill-fated smuggling lands him in the cross-hairs of hidden evil when he realizes that his prize is no ordinary object, but an artifact of the highly-magical, all-consuming Black London.  An artifact capable of moving worlds.  Kell finds himself bound to Lila when he flees to her London for safety and she steals the object, then saves his life.  What follows is a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse that zigzags across worlds.  In true Britishy fashion, it reads like a game of keep-away, each party surpassing the other by inches, only to be thwarted moments later.  I held my breath the whole time (metaphorically, of course).  Every moment of rest is succeeded by greater terror, higher stakes.  It's impossible to put down.  My love wavered only near the end.  I found the denouement rushed, the solutions too neat and too easy.  Despite these reservations, I very much enjoyed the open ending and its wistful promises.   

concept . 5/5
Schwab's vision of alternative worlds is deeply imagined and exciting.   Her universe revolves around four places.  Each has a London, a fixed point with the same name and shape as each other London.  The map surrounding London is different, from the wondrously magical Arnesia to the gray England to the pallid banks of the Siljt.  The worlds surrounding each London are similar only in their capital.  Red London is fertile and throbbing with magic.  Gray London is our London, backtracked to the 18th or 19th century and sooty as ever.  White London is a cold place that thrives on ruthlessness and stands, a sole guardian against the onslaught of the darkness.  And Black London . . . it's gone, destroyed by the wild magic its people too greedily consumed.  Midst these Londons are the Antari, blood magicians who travel between as emissaries between the estranged crowns.  But there are some lurkers who do not wish the worlds to remain so distinctly apart.  Schwab renders this multiplicity of worlds with a deftness of description and a richness that speaks to long histories and fully-formed cultures.  It's the kind of world that deserves many books, and would require them to explore all of its intricacies.  

characters . 4/5
Kell is a variation on a type and, ultimately, his own delightful person.  At turns arrogant and obsessed, stoic and uptight, loving and vulnerable, he's the kind of hero you can believe in.  His arrogance bares him to manipulation, but he's none to shy from consequences.  Throughout the book, he grows from the over-confident smuggler to someone who is willing to save and be saved.  Then there's Lila, a little too manic bordering on childish for my taste, but also refreshingly self-assured.  She's brash and foolish but not stupid, and she proves herself in the end as a person strong enough to make tough decisions and clever enough to enact them.  Some of the side characters are fleeting, like the charming Rhy and the gruff Arnesian royals, but they still feel like real people, despite their short presence.  And the Dane twins?  Schwab makes them gleefully sadistic and truly chilling.  I only wish that we'd come to know Holland better.  His character is clearly complicated and mired in internal conflict, but Schwab only scratches his surface.  

style . 4/5
I'll admit, there were times when the pacing dragged and I hoped to rush forward.  Mostly in the late middle, and few enough that I didn't find myself drifting.  As for the writing, it's Schwab at her best.  She almost perfectly adopts that clipped, quick way of writing and rendering dialogue that Gaiman is famed for, that gives her plenty of room for dry humor and just the right amount of silliness.  On the other hand, she also slips easily into the role of story-spinner to offer up some truly beautiful descriptions as good as paintings.  

mechanics . 5/5
I'm a sucker for languages, and Schwab knows just where in my heart to strike.  She does something quite clever in her book, which is to give each London snippets of languages and unique names that add to the story without overshadowing it.  It's nothing as dense as Tolkien; we get enough snippets to add flair.  Kell will drop an Arnesian phrase here and there.  The White London residents speak only their guttural Norse-like tongue.  The Antari render their spells with words of power.  Languages are easy to muck up, but Schwab's snippets are done well.  They demonstrate a sense of phonology and grammar that makes them believable.  So you don't need whole paragraphs in the language to believe that as travars and as hasari could both be imperative verbs in the same language, or to see Arnesian and the language of White London as distinct.  It's just one of those little extras that really brings Schwab's worlds to life.  

take home message
A whimsical, world-sprawling fantasy full of adventure, intrigue, and characters that will latch onto your heartstrings. Perfect for young adults and other adults alike. 

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  


  1. I read a book by her back when I first started blogging, Near Witch, and I was so impressed with her gorgeous writing. I don't know why I still haven't picked up anything else by her. I had the Archived on my list. This one sounds fantastic. I didn't even know it was out. I must get it now. Thanks for the reivew, CJ!

    1. I have yet to read Near Witch. The Archived was my first from her, and I fell in love. I hope you love this one! She's a keeper.

  2. I love tongue in cheek and I love fantasy so this is a book that I need to read!

    Great Review!

    Michelle @ Book Briefs

    1. You'll definitely enjoy it then. Victoria is such a lovely writer. Thanks!!!