Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review - V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E.Schwab
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 24th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Through a linguistic quirk no one can understand there are four parallel Londons. All in their own worlds, separated from each other like the pages of a book, but all in the same location along the curve of the same river. Though the rivers do not have the same linguistic oddity that London does, instead London is on the banks of the Thames, the Isle, and the Sijlt depending on which London. Once there were doors connecting all the Londons together and perhaps that magical transference is why they share the same name. But the doors had to be closed. One of the worlds became infected by magic and Black London fell. Or at least that's the name Kell has given that world. Kell is an Antari. His one black eye marks him out as being one of only two people in all the Londons able to travel between the worlds. Kell comes from Red London, Arnes, the only London still magically thriving. White London, being closest to the fallen city is now dying too, a vicious and dangerous place with power hungry people and maniacal leaders. Farthest from Black London is Grey London, the London of England and a mad king locked away in a palace while his son waits to rule. Grey London will soon become a refuge for Kell when his illegal habit of collecting artifacts from other Londons gets him into trouble when he is give a powerful relict from Black London. This magical artifact could destroy his world and he needs help. That help comes in the form of Delilah Bard, a Grey London thief who has been waiting her entire life for an adventure. Helping Kell save his world sounds like an adventure worthy of her. Because if you don't risk your life, did you really live?

Much like Murder, Magic and What We Wore this is another book that takes the Regency Magic building blocks and goes in an entirely unexpected direction. We start out in the London we know so well, there's a mad king on the throne and his power hungry son. But here OUR London is just a starting off point. The aptly named "Grey" London, if just for the rain and soot and not it's lack of magic, is utilized, but just to familiarize ourselves with what to expect going forward with the magical worldbuilding. Like Grey London's Lila we need to get a grasp on what we are about to delve into with Red and White London. Lila is our avatar, our touchstone in A Darker Shade of Magic. Red London is, in my mind, a more Renaissance Faire Game of Thrones world. There's more pageantry and partying, in fact the Prince Regent from Grey London would probably love to rule over Arnes! This world that Schwab has built is more in keeping with books considered traditional fantasy fare. This really intrigues me because so much of Regency Magic is about trying to infuse the fantasy into our world, shoehorn it in if you will, whereas here there are no pretensions, it's an all out fantasia and that's what makes this book so unique. As for White London? That world is like some dark Scandinavian shit y'all. The closest I can think of is Vikings meet Fortitude... and that's dark. But again, something you wouldn't expect in the dainty drawing rooms of Regency England and that's perhaps why I'm most drawn to the White city.

The fact that I can find something to love in each and every one of the different Londons just shows how Schwab 100% nailed the worldbuilding. But I don't want to talk about the worlds here as a whole I want to talk about how she was able to ground the magic in reality and describe it in a logical way that fit into the narrative so that it didn't feel like necessary but clunky exposition. Magic here is based on the elements, the building blocks of the world around us; fire, water, air, earth, metal, and bone. This is all explained to us by a magic set that Kell has brought from Red to Grey London for a collector of magical ephemera. While waiting for the buyer to appear he meets Edward Archibald Tuttle III, Ned. Ned isn't a collector, he's an enthusiast, which are people Kell tends to avoid. But on this one day he's feeling generous and shows the learning tool to Ned. This small box contains a little of the basic five elements, it's not considered good manners or good in general to talk about being able to control bone. There's water, sand for air, earth, oil for fire, and metal. This is how you learn what your elemental affinity is. Because magic is fickle. Not everyone has talent and most only have a connection to one element, sometimes two, but three is really rare. Because Kell is Antari and can use blood magic he can also control all elements. But to me I just like the simplicity of the system. Now I'm not using simplicity as an insult, because this is a complex world that Schwab has built, I'm using it as a compliment, in the it's easy to understand and grasp and therefore the magic is more real because you can understand it. See, that's a compliment.

But I wouldn't be me if I loved everything about a book now would I? I have now read A Darker Shade of Magic twice and it's not quite as good the second time around. Scwab has given us such a fast-paced read that the first time you're almost stumbling over the words just trying to get to the next page, not picking up on each and every detail in the need to know what happens to Kell and Lila. So reading it a second time I wasn't racing because I knew the outcome and therefore I started to catch little inconsistencies. This all boils down to the way Schwab writes. You'll be reading a paragraph and she'll mention someone standing and you will be convinced that they were sitting just a second ago. So you'll go back and only about 50% of the time does she say they've moved and it's usually buried deep in the text and is just brushed aside in passing. You know the saying, don't bury your lead? You should also not bury important things like a characters physical location. Because while she does say they've moved 50% of the time the other 50% of the time she doesn't. They're sitting, they're standing, they're here, they're there, it drove me slightly batty. I like to know what the characters look like and where they are, and most of the time I just didn't know where they were! I don't know if you're like me, but when I read I visually picture everything and when a new piece of information arrives I readjust the scene, like quickly panning the camera to another location. But here it was like I was playing some of my old MMORPGs where my character would jump from one location to another because of lag. I didn't like that when I played games, and I sure don't like it when reading a book.

Though this writing quirk is something that can be lovingly beaten out of Schwab given good enough editors. Come on Tor, I believe in you! What can't be fixed, at least in this installment of the trilogy, is that I just don't get the Kell/Rhy dynamic. Rhy is the royal prince whose family "adopted" Kell. So it's brotherly to an extent, but Kell willing to give up/bind his life to Rhy doesn't sit right with me. Rhy comes across as Red London's answer to Captain Jack Harkness but without the whole bothering to save the world. He's insecure and annoying. There has to be SOME reason other than this brotherly love for Kell to risk so much. Kell recounts a story of when Rhy was younger and got kidnapped and Kell saved Rhy's life almost at the cost of his own. It's a touching story, but for me I only felt Kell's need, not any justification for the act. It's more like Kell is so used to saving Rhy that he views it as his job. This has the effect of making Rhy more dependent on Kell and therefore more jealous of his "brother" which leads to the whole, oh shit I need Kell to magically save my life yet again. Rhy's rebellion at this need makes him a selfish ass. Sometimes you do need help, sometimes you aren't the best or the brightest, but doing something stupid just makes you stupid. Now you're saying I'm missing the point, that this shows that everyone is vulnerable and that love conquers all... that's not how I read it. To me it came across that a spoiled prince was an imposition to his "brother," who is treated more as a magical orphan slave than a sibling, yet again and it would have been just to have Rhy's actions have consequences that affected him and not others. Hence I don't get Kell/Rhy... just let the prince die.


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