A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Publication Year: 2015
Series: Shades of Magic #1
Format: Audio (Audible.com)
Format: Audio (Audible.com)
Narrator: Steven Crossley
SYNOPSIS: There are three Londons left, each existing in a parallel universe to the others. Gray London is (mostly) the one we are familiar with circa 19th century. Red London is the one with just the right amount of magic, a stable government and residents and objects that naturally smell like flowers. Finally there is white London, drowning in magic, brutal, ugly and unstable. Kell, from Red London, is one of only two magicians who has the ability to cross in between these Londons and as such he plays a very important role, diplomatic and otherwise, for Red London's monarchy. It is not surprising, then, that he gets caught up in a play for power by White London which also throws him together with Lila, a street rat from Gray London who gets caught in the cross fire when she steals from Kell. The two must return a dangerous object across the three Londons in order to keep White London from taking over all. So basically a quest fantasy with some twists!
From the first moment I heard about the premise of this book I was dying to read it. I love the idea of being able to cross between parallel worlds/dimensions and examining how the absence of this or the addition of that changes a point in space, in this case London. It's a great concept which is simple and easy to understand but poses all kinds of cool scenarios and complexities. Schwab does a pretty job taking advantage of all the promise inherent in parallel worlds with the level of magic being the changing factor. The idea of having just a few mysterious people who are born with the ability to go between these worlds is also cool. They become valuable and are loaded down with expectations and it serves to make the characters of Kell and Holland that much more complex and interesting but more on that later.
Despite, or maybe because of, the cool premise, the book started rather slowly for me. The first 20% or so involved a LOT of world building that felt kind of static but after that, the action picks up and keeps accelerating to the end. The plot is relatively straight forward but the stakes and suspense continue to build as the book rolls on making the resolution satisfying if not mind blowing.
The focus on establishing "the scene" also delayed some of the character development that was needed to engage me right away. I liked Kell from the beginning. Immediately it is clear that he is compassionate and has a good heart but he is not 100% heroic. The royal family of Red London have adopted him as their own but Kell, while mostly appreciative and loyal, also resents this and cynically believes that they don't truly value him as much as his power. He chafes under the responsibility his power necessitates. However, Ry, the crown prince is his best friend and is his brother in name if not in blood, so Ry knows about Kell's small rebellions, trading goods between the Londons which is strictly forbidden. The only other magician who can cross between worlds is Holland from white London and he is a delicious and terrifying henchman reminiscent of the villainous henchmen of James Bond.
|Kell Fan Art by Kuro-skies.tumblr.com|
Where I struggled to connect character-wise was with Delilah Bard aka Lila. She is a type of character that I normally don't connect with - very fly by the seat of her pants/impulsive/reckless and I initially didn't love her but by the end of the book I really liked her and think I probably would have loved her if it wasn't for the narrator.
And that's my last big complaint about the book which isn't really about the book but about the narrator of the audio. He had a fine voice and is in fact a much used and award-winning narrator but I did not like him for this book. He is obviously an older man by his voice and this is a book that is 90% about people in their early 20s or younger. Kell whose voice was closest to his own, therefore sounded growly and too mature, Ry, the crown prince sounded like a 14 year old who hadn't gone through puberty yet and Lila's voice and speech patterns were just weird. It made her sound immature and petulant. I think the way he voiced Lila really impacted how I felt about her as a character. I will definitely read the next book of this series in print!
FINAL VERDICT: Despite a slow start, I ended up loving this atmospheric and unique quest fantasy! 4 out of 5 Stars.