It’s a sunny June day so my thoughts are turning to relaxing holiday reading. On my wish-list when I’m reading Fantasy purely for pleasure are thrilling adventures in spectacular settings, flawed but lovable heroines and heroes, scary but interesting villains, breathtaking magic, a dash of romance, a sprinkling of humour and, if I’m really in a holiday mood, some cute animals and covetable clothes. I found most of these elements in V.E.Schwab’s `A Darker Shade of Magic’ so I’m making it this week’s recommendation. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ was published a few months ago and is already available in paperback and as an ebook.
The story begins in 1819 when a young man called Kell arrives in London to visit the mad King George III. Kell is an Antari, a blood-magician with the very rare skill of being able to travel between parallel worlds. King George rules Grey London, which has no magic but is developing science and technology, while Kell comes from Red London which is rich in magical power. In White London people fight ferociously to control the little magic that is left after a crippling war with Black London, which has long been sealed off as a place too dangerous to visit. Kell has been adopted by the royal family of Red London and serves as an official messenger between the rulers of the three remaining Londons. It is absolutely forbidden for an Antari to carry anything between the worlds except royal letters but Kell is a rule-breaker and a risk taker.
During a trip to White London, Kell rashly agrees to smuggle a package which turns out to contain a magical stone that can only have come from Black London. In Grey London, Kell is attacked and wounded and the powerful black stone is stolen from him by a pick-pocket known as the Shadow Thief. When Kell tracks down the Shadow Thief he discovers that she is a nineteen year old girl called Delilah Bard. Lila has romantic dreams of becoming a pirate with her own ship and she longs for a life of adventure. When she proves to have an apititude for magic, Lila forces Kell to take her with him on the perilous journey he must make between worlds to get rid of the black stone. In Red London, Lila and Kell discover that there is a plot against the royal family which threatens the life of Kell’s adoptive brother, the dashing Prince Rhys. Kell and Lila also find themselves hunted by Holland, the powerful Antari who is forced to serve the Dane twins, the psychotic rulers of White London. Can a smuggler and a thief stop a magical war between the worlds which might threaten all the Londons?
I imagine that it was the interesting concept of a series of alternate Londons which sold this book to the publishers. London-based Fantasy has become fashionable in recent years and I’ve recommended a number of outstanding examples on my blog, such as Benedict Jacka’s `Fated’ (October 2012), Ben Aaronovitch’s `Rivers of London’ (December 2012) and Kate Griffin’s `A Madness of Angels’ (March 2013). In `A Darker Shade of Magic’ Kell reveals that he has never been to the countryside beyond the three cities but I’m not entirely convinced that Urban Fantasy is Schwab’s thing. None of her Londons seem as vivid and varied as the real city in all its splendour and squalor. Her Grey London is well…a bit grey. Flower-scented Red London with its shining crimson river and teeming Night Market, is the most colourful of the Londons we get to explore in this novel.
Palaces, and the extravagances and intrigues of court life, appear to inspire Schwab more than cityscapes. `Dreary’ Windsor Castle and `elegant’ St James in Grey London; `Beating Heart’ the glittering palace built on a bridge over the magic-filled river of Red London, and the `Stone Forest’ fortress of the rulers of ash-covered White London are very well differentiated. Imagining striking clothes for her characters to wear is another of Schwab’s strengths. Lila gets to go to a masquerade ball in pirate boots, a horned mask and a cloak of true black velvet with glassy red clasps, while Kell has a magical coat which can transform itself to fit the fashion of any time or place. I want one of those.
Schwab is also a fine story-teller. Her fast-paced narrative is full of exciting action scenes – chases, abductions, murders, fights and some cracking magical duels – but still finds time for character development. `A Darker Shade of Magic’ is a good example of a `cascade plot’. Kell’s petty smuggling lands him in ever-worsening trouble and leads to further rule-breaking (such as transporting Lila between worlds) as he strives to put things right. The vicious rulers of White London, Queen Astrid and her brother King Athos, may be standard Fantasy villains who wouldn’t be out of place in `Game of Thrones’ but their evil plans do lead to some high-tension scenes. In spite of its title, I haven’t tagged this novel as Dark Fantasy because the mood of the story is relatively upbeat and the violence isn’t too gory. Schwab’s mission is to entertain her readers, not to horrify or disgust them.
Kell’s rival blood-magician, Holland, fulfils my requirement for an interesting villain. Holland’s true feelings remain hidden for most of the story and he frequently challenges Kell’s beliefs about the nature of magic. Is magic about balance or about dominance? Does the magician choose magic or the magic choose the magician? The most frightening force in the book is the stone from Black London, which can grant remarkable powers but is addictive and potentially lethal. As the story develops it becomes clear that Kell is not the only one to have made a near-disastrous mistake because of a desire to be something that he isn’t.
Kell and Lila meet by chance and become magically linked through an exchange of objects. Their story isn’t (yet) a romantic one, but they seem to have a special insight into each other’s true characters. Lila rejects any form of charity and insists that she needs no friends. She presents herself as a bold adventurer who steals `for freedom’ but Kell sees through this to the frightened, abused girl struggling to survive in a largely hostile world. Picturesque Kell ( pale skin, copper hair, one blue and one black eye), who has no idea who his real parents are, seems a typical brooding tormented Fantasy hero. It is one of the pleasures of this novel that spirited Lila won’t let him play this role. She frequently reminds Kell that he is lucky to have a family of any kind, that he has never known the poverty and hardship which she has experienced, and that breaking the rules for kicks just makes him a spoiled brat. Lila does though have some lessons to learn from Kell about friendship and unselfish bravery. I’m looking forward to reading the further adventures of this likeable pair and, who knows, there may even be some cute animals in the sequel. Until next time….