A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. ★★★1/2
Trigger warning for attempted rape
A Darker Shade of Magic has fantastic world building and prose, but for some reason it just didn’t do it for me. The most likely reason is that I never connected well to any of the characters.
Kell is one of two people who can travel between the Londons – flourishing Red London, full of magic; bitter and murderous White London; mundane Grey London; and Black London, lost long ago. When Kell accidentally cares a dangerous parcel between worlds, he runs into street thief Delilah Bard, and they must work together to stop a dangerous magic from overrunning all the remaining worlds.
The idea of A Darker Shade of Magic is fantastic, and the world building of the different Londons is very well done. A sense of magic permeates the book, even when the events take us to our own ordinary Grey London. Schawb’s prose style is delightfully vivid, and her settings unerringly come to life.
With all that it has going for it, I have a hard time pinpointing why I didn’t like this book more than I did. The most likely explanation is the characterization. I never became attached to any character in the novel. I think this is because we don’t see either of the leads having much in the way of relationships to other people. Kell does have relationships with people in his own world, primarily his brother Rhy, but it feels like we are mainly told about these relationships rather than actually see them. On the other hand, Lila doesn’t have much of a relationship with anyone, besides the growing connection with Kell. There’s a barkeep who helps her out sometimes, but the book doesn’t do much there.
Also, Lila had some weird internalized sexism that was never called out or refuted? There’s this section on page 66 where she is very scornful of other women, and that they deserve to be stolen from because they are pretending to be weak:
“It served them right, for playing weak. Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to swoon at every top hat and take hold of every offered hand.”
The entire thing reeks of “Not Like The Other Girls,” where the female lead is made to seem special by distinguishing her from the other (inferior) members of her gender. The book does pass the Bechdel test, but only due to two scenes. In one Lila gets a disguise from a female merchant. In another she exchanges fight scene banter with the villainess. Neither is enough to dispel the pall cast by Lila’s noxious attitudes. Also, Lila’s second scene is a largely unnecessary attempted rape, which feels like cheap plotting more than anything else.
In the same vein, Rhy really seemed to be playing into stereotypes. He’s the only queer character in the whole novel and he’s a promiscuous bisexual? Gee, where have I seen that before. He’s got other personality traits (mostly informed rather than seen), but promiscuous bisexual seems to be a defining one. And the two are conflated as well, where it seems more like he’s bisexual because he’s promiscuous than that he’s a bisexual who also happens to be promiscuous.
I can see why other people really loved this book. As I mentioned before, the ideas and world building were very good. I mostly enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, although I’m not planning on reading the sequel. This probably isn’t going to be one I wholeheartedly recommend, but you may very well like it more than I did.