A Darker Shade of Magic: welcome to London

Book cover: A Darker Shade of Magic - V E Schwab (silhouette of someone in a fabulously billowy cloak in black and red)London: one name, three cities in three very different worlds, each with more magic than the last. Only two men hold the power to cross between worlds, and one is about to unwittingly put them all at risk. Because there was once a fourth London – and its magic tires of being sealed away…

A Darker Shade of Magic is my first encounter with Victoria Schwab, but I knew early on that it wouldn’t be my last (not least because it was going to take a major second-half catastrophe to undermine the exuberant delight I was taking in reading it, so the sequels were a dead cert).

We are ushered into the company of quiet-spoken Kell, royal Prince and – as one of the two last Antari – an ambassador to other worlds. Kell is a young man of contrasts: he chides his true-born royal brother to be less of a larrikin, but he also smuggles artifacts between worlds, a crime the King would be unable to ignore if he knew of it. Just as well that being an Antari means that Kell is a blood magician of the first rank and can conceal his tracks.

Kell is conscientious and diplomatic, but he also plays cards with criminals (and cheats). His coat has more sides than meet the eye. Think of all those hidden pockets. Yet at heart he’s a good man – smuggling is a hobby and a minor rebellion against royal parents who adopted him, but refuse to tell him anything of his origins.

We see little of his brother Rhy, red-blooded as the London he is heir to, and clearly as boisterous as any young man certain to inherit a magical kingdom. It’s enough to know that Kell loves him unreservedly; my question was only whether this meant he would go to great lengths to save his life or whether they would find themselves at unexpected loggerheads (because I couldn’t help but think – however inappropriately – of Janny Wurts’s War of Light and Shadow).

Travelling with Kell as he delivers messages between worlds, we are introduced to how he sees them: Grey London, our grubby, unmagical world in the 18th century; his own gorgeous Red London, where magic hangs in the air and is carried on the river’s tides; and the cold, dying streets of White London, whose residents will kill for a sniff of power. The ruthless Dane twins rule it with enthusiastic viciousness – and while I ought to dismiss them as absurdly over the top cardboard villains, they take such pleasure in it that I found them irresistible. It’s no surprise to discover that White London – where the only other Antari in the worlds is bound to his King’s will – is hatching some sort of plot to upset the apple cart. The only question is what that plot may be.

It’s pretty obvious that being a smuggler will be Kell’s downfall – but I didn’t expect him to accidentally unleash a magical plague that would begin to infect all the worlds. Possession by magic itself, exchanged by bodily fluids and more than capable of riding a dead body (so gutting you to take you over is entirely on the cards)… it’s horrific. I couldn’t look away.

Luckily for Kell, hunted by the powers of White London and the literal incarnation of Black magic, he bumps into the amoral Delilah Bard, street thief and wanted (wo)man of Grey London. Unluckily for him, she promptly robs him of the smuggled item that has caused his woes.

Lila Bard is one of those heroines who steal my heart before we reach the end of the first page she appears on. Young, headstrong, street smart rather than wise, desperate for adventure, quick with her knives, but with a streak of kindness she tries to hide she’s the swashbuckling stereotype of the scoundrel with a heart of gold. And she’s not a bloke. Oh, be still my heart. No, no good. She’s already run off with, laughing as she goes.

Neither conventionally attractive nor particularly interested in meeting anyone’s expectations but her own, Kell finds himself tied to Lila’s bed being menaced for answers. Lucky Kell. When she lays her hands on the innocuous lump of rock that will let her tap into the heady powers of Black London, she… promptly creates a Kell doppelganger and has it strip. She’s outrageous. She’s wonderful. I’m gushing, aren’t I?

A Darker Shade of Magic was far too much fun. The villains were wicked, the heroes were ambiguous in more ways than one, and the threat was blood-curdling (literally). Red London was full of pageantry, White London was terrifying, and Black London… well, it’s a shadow and a threat, as Legolas might say. Chock full of action and derring do, my only complaint would be that I felt like it slipped a gear in the final act – over-revving, maybe? The climax wasn’t quite as satisfying as the build up to it, although it was still thrilling.

And, like the end of any first book in a trilogy should do, it wraps up its own plot and darts off into the sunset, leaving you to count the threads left innocently dangling innocently, minding their own business.

Doubleplus points for not featuring a romance. Sure, there’s enough groundwork set for this to develop, but HELL YES A FANTASY DRIVEN BY FRIENDSHIP.