Because all of life is stories.
Every time I open a book, I know that I probably won’t be wowed. I enjoy most books, they go on the shelf, I may even read them again later. It isn’t often anymore that I get wowed.
Let me tell you this. V.E. Schwab wowed me. She took me for a ride, beat the hell out of me with words, and left me absolutely drained by the time I flipped the last page. A Darker Shade of Magic is one of my early candidates for Book of the Year. Drop what you’re doing, and go read it.
Schwab’s tales is one of pirates and smugglers, of magicians and court politics, of madness and a dying world. We’re introduced fairly quickly to the rules and regulations of her worlds, enough to let us stay with the story, but not enough to dispel the mystery of the magic in her world. We learn soon that in her world there exist four Londons, each of them belonging to a different verse. The bones of each are the same, and the Thames runs through all four, but they are as vastly different as one can imagine. Our world, Grey London, exists on one end of the spectrum. On the far end of the scope is Black London, dead and burned out, a relic and warning of against magical recklessness. And in between sit the last remaining bastions of magic. White London, a place of brutality and dominance, and Red London, a place of harmony and balance. It is in Red London that we meet the first of our protagonists.
Kell is one of the rare magicians born with the power to move between the worlds. One of only two in fact. Antari such as Kell are used as messengers between the royalty of each of the three Londons that still have a ruling class. Though bringing anything other than official business is forbidden, Kell has become something of a collector and smuggler. And this is the habit that gets him in trouble.
Lila Bard is my new favorite female character. A street orphan from Grey London, Lila has a growing reputation as a thief amongst the rich, and dreams of adventure, of a life greater than the one she has. She’s quick with a knife and her mouth, but misses falling into the trope of “Badass Female Character.” Don’t get me wrong, Delilah Bard is absolutely a badass, but Schwab makes her into a fully realized character with wants, needs, dreams, fears, insecurities, the works. I get the feeling we will be seeing more of “Captain” Bard in the future. There are too many intriguing hints at her past and too much future opportunity to just let her sail into the wind.
While we’re talking about characters let me tell you about the deranged mad Queen and King of White London: Astrid and Athos Dane. Astrid and Athos are both most definitely sadists, though the forms of entertainment and torture they employ suit their personalities like bloodied gloves. Athos favors a more brutal and domineering style, and uses a silver whip to great effect. For Athos, it’s all about power, and control over others. Astrid is just as much a lunatic as her brother, but takes her time. For Astrid, it’s all about playing a beautiful game, whereas with Athos it seems the object is just to win. Astrid toys with her victims, uses them against one another, demands submission and ownership from all those she overpowers, rather than just, say, turning them to stone. They are both demented and abjectly horrifying people. And I love every moment the two of them are on the page.
When Kell inadvertently moves a relic of Black London from one world to the next, he finds himself thrown into a chase that leads him through the various worlds, where he meets Lila and her penchant for exciting thievery. The two of them travel the worlds and Londons pursued by Antari, monsters of Black London, the royal guard of Red London, and the White King and Queen themselves in an effort to save all four worlds from the darkness of the black relic.
It’s a pitch perfect novel that kept me turning page after page late into the night and early into the following morning. Schwab is a rare talent that can effortlessly and gracefully switch from breathtaking displays of magic, harrowing rescues, and epic fights to close and personal moments of doubt, love, betrayal, and regret. It’s rare for me to say I can’t think of a single bad thing about a novel, but I can’t think of a single bad thing about this novel. Well, there is one little thing at the end but that’s more of a “I wish I had seen this” than “I don’t like how this was done.” If only virtually all of my wishes for what should be in a book are fulfilled then I suppose thats alright.
And the magic! Oh the magic. If you’ve read a fair bit of my blog you know my love of Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems. They are all based heavily in rules and strengths and weaknesses and almost treated like a science, as opposed to the vague handwavium of “It just works that way.” Not to say that there is anything wrong with handwavium, I just love getting my hands on the way magic works. Again, Schwab deftly gives us all we need to know to make her story strong and compelling, but still leaves plenty of mystery that makes me scratch my head and stare at the pages in starry eyed wonder. Like the magic flowing through the four Londons Schwab’s writing and magic flow from page to page and create a world with feeling, with wonder and mystery.
Have I mentioned you should go read this book? Go read this book. It’s absolutely wonderful and incredible and I am having a lot of emotions right now. I can’t wait until I get to see more of these characters and these worlds. I hope I get to. 400 pages just isn’t nearly enough time to explore the four Londons. But it is enough to tell the best story I’ve read in a very long time.