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A Darker Shade of Magic

March 30, 2015

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A Darker Shade of Magic

V. E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic was two books and 40 pages ago and I really should’ve reviewed it here sooner, but it only just hit me that yes, it was the best book I’ve read so far this year. I’ve read a couple others that are very well-written and one that was both well-written and enjoyable, but A Darker Shade of Magic is well-written, fun, and original. Also, I loathed the primary antagonists, which is always a good sign.

The basics: There are four worlds, with four different relationships to magic. Each world has a London. The main character, Kell, is powerful enough to travel between the worlds, relaying messages between governments and flirting with danger on the side. Danger soon starts flirting back. There’s also a female thief from our (magic-less) Regency London, who intersects Kell’s story, and then things start progressing in unexpected ways. For them, and for the reader.

This is one of those books I couldn’t quite divorce my reader-brain from my writer-brain, because I couldn’t help notice how effortless, how beautiful, Schwab’s writing is. I don’t mean on a sentence level, though the tightness there was a nice surprise. (I’ve gotten used to shorter, lighter sentences that can practically be skimmed.) On a plot level, a book level … I don’t quite know how she did it. The world-building spins out organically as the story progresses, so rich that I know Schwab hasn’t told us everything. Clues are dropped without being obvious. The story itself twists and turns in ways that are both comfortable, fitting into reader expectations re: dark alleys, royalty, final battles, and so on, and unexpected, veering off as soon as the reader starts thinking, “Well, clearly this is going to happen….”

And then we hit the characters. They’re layered, rounded, including the secondary cast and Kell himself, which … again, I’ve gotten used to protagonists who are shallow, less built up, more reader stand-ins, and Kell is most certainly not that. Kell has a life after this book, instead of vanishing into limbo like many of the shallower protagonists do. That goes for everyone, actually, supporting cast, bit parts, antagonists alike. Back to the expectations thing: I was rooting for the heroes, gasping at injuries to supporting characters, thoroughly disturbed and rooting against the villains, which isn’t really a surprise, but Schwab got me doing all that quickly. Often within a scene.

The whole mix—world, plot, characters, narration, expectations—made for a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read. It was a ride, thrilling and enchanting and skilled, and I closed the book with two competing thoughts. “That was a wonderful story. I’m glad I wasn’t left hanging.”  “Man, I really hope there’s another book in this setting.” It’s exactly the sort of book I like—not too light that it’s gone in hours, not too heavy that it’s a slog. Pretty much perfect, mild typos aside.

In other news, there’s going to be a second book at the end of 2016. I guess I can wait that long.

Top 5 Novels Of the Year, So Far:

  1. A Darker Shade of Magic
  2. The Martian
  3. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac
  4. Snow White Red-Handed
  5. Mythago Wood
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