Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

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It's been a while since I've been able to sit down to write a review the day after I finished a book. It's what I prefer to do, but life has been busy, and the reviews have been getting snuck in around the edges of my day, and it's often several days until I can get to one.

So, with V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic recent in my memory, what do I want to say about it? First, I suppose, that I haven't read anything from Schwab before, but I certainly saw this book cross my radar a few times as I've been compiling earlier year lists of popular books. And I...I liked it. I didn't love it, and there are a few reasons why. But it's fairly solid, and the main characters are interesting and the world is certainly tense and full of danger, and those are all good things.

However, it also feels like there is not as much story as there is book, if that makes sense. The danger that runs through it is substantially the same danger all the way along, and there isn't enough rising and falling of action - it seems to feel urgent all the time, which in the long run, dampens down how urgent it actually is.

You need quieter moments that are more than searching for the next artifact to transport you to another world in between the chases through the streets and fights when someone from another world or controlled by someone or something from another world tries to kill you in a dark alley. These are the two set pieces, but they happen repeatedly. The third that recurs is an encounter at the court of either Red London or White London, and none of these are bad, but there is still a sense of the same part of the story being told over. It just needs a stronger sense of progression. Or more story that Schwab is driving towards. I'm not sure which.

Given that I haven't described the book at all, I've probably entirely confused you by now. See, there are apparently four Londons, and four different worlds. Outside of London, which seems to be a constant, things are very different in each world. England itself is not a constant. Black London has been closed off for centuries, as magic there ran out of control and consumed its citizens. White London was caught between them and Red London when Red London closed its multiversal borders, and their magic has been fading and they've resorted to preying on each other for scraps of magic left over.

Red London has a very magical red Thames running through it and is all the magic, but not in overwhelming ways. Grey London is pretty much ours in a Victorian-type era, and magicless. Kell is one of only two Antari left - those born to magic who can walk between worlds. He's been adopted as a son into the Red London royal family. The other Antari is magically enslaved to the twin rulers of White London, who crave all the power they can acquire.

Kell takes messages between London, and on one of these trips, things go awry, everyone wants what he's got in his pocket (in an entirely non-lewd sense, I assure you), and he meets Lila, a young woman in Grey London who dresses up as a man to rob people. For various reasons, she starts travelling with him.

From here, it's an elaborate game of keep-away, and perhaps that's why I say there isn't enough story. Once we know that it's all about who's got the magic stone, we get the overarching shape of the story, and Schwab isn't really subverting anything in following that arc. It's well done, mind you. It just needs to be either shorter or twistier, or change things more definitively and follow them through to new conclusions.

Maybe that's what the later books will do. I'm interested to read them, despite my complaints. There's much to like here, even though a lot of the book feels like it's just waiting for the real story to begin. If this is prologue, it could have been wrapped up much more quickly. But I am interested to see where it goes from here.

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