It’s a rare thing to find a book that feels like it was written just for you; a book that, the first time you read it, already feels like an old favorite, like a movie you’ve watched 100 times and can’t wait to watch again. That’s this book: V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic hit my sweet spot like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Reading it is like stepping through a secret door into the land of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore.
Fittingly, it’s a book about secret doorways between worlds, the magic of place, location, and the wheel of Fate tweaking circumstances just enough to make all the difference. It tells the story of four cities that all happen to be named “London,” all of them a kind of fixed point in different, overlapping worlds, some more magical than others—Red London is rich with power, Grey London (a version of our world) is leeched of it, and Black London…well, no one talks about Black London.
Centuries ago, magical doors between worlds were open to all, but a cataclysmic event forced the kingdoms to seal them and shore up their defenses. Now, these passageways can only be traversed by Travelers, a dwindling few born with the innate power to access them. At first, isolating the different worlds seemed like the right decision, but this is epic fantasy, and we have to keep in mind that the One Ring wants to be found. The sins of the fathers will come back to haunt us, no matter how deep we think we’ve buried them (or how impassible we think the doors we’ve placed between us and them). It doesn’t help at all when you’ve got a hero like Kell, Red London’s last living Traveler, who takes the laws against spiriting object between worlds as a personal challenge, with disastrous, potentially world-ending results.
This story’s tapestry is sewn with the threads of the best adventure yarns (A Quest! Chase scenes! A Spectacle! Palace Intrigue! And So. Much. Swashbuckling.), woven in modern, complex patterns. Kell is far from perfect—he’s morally ambiguous at best, and quite possibly to blame for the whole mess. Like Scott Lynch’s beloved screwup Locke Lamora, not only does Kell not win all the time, he loses such a spectacular amount of the time (and sometimes so completely and utterly) that I was floored that he was still allowed keep his hero card.
The supporting cast surprises, too: Delilah Bard, the requisite lady companion, is as sassy and as good with a sword as you would expect, but she’s also given a genuine, separate inner life of her own, with goals that she yearns for that will never be met by some stereotypical hero on a quest, no matter how pretty his eyes are. (Even better: It could not matter less what she looks like.) We even get an ambiguous villain, a dark mirror version of Kell who demonstrates how easily our hero could have become something else. (Defying expected tropes of heroism and villainy is nothing new for Schwab; pick up her debut novel, Vicious, if you want to see the superhero/supervillain dynamic blown to smithereens).
Despite its classic adventure construction, thematically the book is very much part of the present. Through the construction of progressively less magical Londons, Schwab reminds us that all forms of great power (whether “magic,” or WMDs, or mighty armies, or control of media) are destined to be opposed, and of the dangers of assigning too much power to any individual, even in a world where everyone has access to some form of that power. Only one version of the city manages to use its magic in a way that seems to better its citizens and strengthen its community. And even then, it only does so by raising a magical fence and ignoring the struggles of its less fortunate neighbors, who have been tearing themselves apart, conveniently out of sight, for centuries. Oh gee, does this sound familiar? At a time when class and racial tensions in our world are reaching a boiling point, the book hits close to home. Despite the evil embodied in its ultimate villains, it’s hard to fault anyone for taking extreme measures to climb over those walls at any cost.
The only fault, if you can call it that, is that it ends all too soon (thankfully, though the book stands alone, there will be a sequel). Schwab has created a wonderful world brimming with possibility, one I left feeling like I had just begun to explore, and I would love to punch my return ticket right now, please.