A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.
Schwab hasn’t built an incredible world here; she’s built four.
Four Londons – Grey, Red, White, and Black – have sealed their doors to each other due to Black London imploding magic and destroying itself. Only blood magicians can travel through doors to other Londons, and carry messages to and from the monarchs in each.
The world-building is good. Each London has its own personality, people, and smell. Travelling through these with our blood magician protagonist, Kell, was glorious. Even the behaviour of the Londoners marked clearly where we were, and what we could expect to deal with. Despite this, I needed more history on each London, their royalty, what they had been through, how they were dealing with the magical disaster – everything. Other than Red London, the others were pretty underdeveloped, with only fleeting visits allowed. I would have greedily inhaled anything more I could get.
Things go sour pretty quickly in the magical Londons, and we’re plunged into a complicated mission. This involves a lot of bad guys, magical fighting, and blood. This is a personal taste, but the magical fights didn’t do much for me; they happened so frequently I was keen to get them over with in the hopes of the next chapter containing some lore.
Both of our protagonists were compelling, yet I feel their deeper histories have been held back for the sequel. There seems to be a lot about their pasts which will make interesting reveals, and although I relish the thought of finding out, a little bit more of a clue could have driven a better cliffhanger. I did appreciate the lack of romance involved here – there is nothing triter than a man and woman saving the world and then going to bed together.
The best way I could describe this would be Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Game of Thrones, and although that’s a compliment, it’s still nothing like either of these novels. It truly stands alone as like nothing I’ve ever read before in this genre. It’s a really exciting and unique take on magic, and I’m excited to continue my journey in blood magic.