“But the thing about people, Kell had discovered, is that they didn’t really want to know. They thought they did, but knowing only made them miserable.”
A Darker Shade of Magic is a beautifully crafted fantasy that explores the concept of four parallel but incredibly different versions of London that can be traveled between, but only by a select few individuals called Antari. Schwab’s prose is concise yet lyrical, and the perfect balance reached between the two makes for writing that seems to flow effortlessly, enabling the reader to get completely immersed in the unraveling story. Schwab’s world building is similarly effortless, which is a great feat considering the unique nature of both her setting and the magic system that takes place within it.
The aforementioned magic system and world building was one of my favorite elements of the novel, and I felt that Schwab’s execution of her concept was incredible here. Each alternate London was constructed incredibly intricately, yet this didn’t negatively impact the pacing as I had expected. The creation of Red London allowed for a subsequent establishment of a magic system which was deliberately limited, and also a whole new language, which was weaved into the narrative perfectly. The element of travel between these alternate Londons allowed for the introduction of political intrigue, as one of Kell’s main purposes becomes exchanging messages between the major powers in each London. This is an element to the story that I loved, particularly since I feel that it becomes central to the complexity of Kell’s character.
Schwab has a skill in making characters incredibly complex but still allowing room for more development in later books, and this can be seen best in the central character Kell. Kell’s sense of morality is immediately set up to be somewhat dubious; the entire plot comes about as a result of a mistake made due to practicing something he shouldn’t– smuggling. Yet despite the flaws he may have, this is a character that is also established as being incredibly family orientated (as seen best in his dynamic with Rhy), and as being willing to do everything he can to try to rectify his mistake. Furthermore, Kell is also a character that struggles with his identity and sense of belonging, which is caused predominantly by the burden of being one of the last of his kind. This complexity allows for the audience to connect to the character, and therefore the story, incredibly well.
The dynamics set up between Kell and the other characters is another feature that made this novel particularly brilliant. Schwab sets Holland up not just as a villain, but also as a foil to Kell. This aids the portrayal of Kell’s struggle with his identity, since the only other Antari he has come across acts in incredibly dark and twisted ways. Furthermore, the dynamics Kell has with both Rhy and Lila are just as important, as they also help to form the basis of his character. While his protectiveness over Rhy reinforces the importance of family to this character, his dynamic with Lila introduces an importance of friendship. Here Schwab expertly shows the necessity of a solid friendship prior to any romantic relations, which is something rarely seen in this type of novel, and is something I hugely appreciated!
However, it is important not to diminish these characters as mere devices to aid the portrayal of Kell, as they are in themselves just as complex. Lila is a character that can be insufferably stubborn but she is also a character that stands for what she believes in and ultimately deeply wants better for herself. Holland is equally as interesting; he’s a dark and twisted character, but one with a tragic background that’s enough for the reader to start to empathize with him despite not wanting him to succeed in his harmful plans. Here Schwab is seen to excel in her creation of extremely flawed yet undeniably interesting characters, a skill which allows her to create a truly brilliant story.
Overall, Schwab was able to create an incredible story through interesting structural choices, the creation of complex characters that still have room to develop, and the creation of a complex setting through incredible world building. I enjoyed reading this immensely, and look forward to seeing the characters develop further in the following books!
“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.”
Her smile widened. “Everything.”