As a genre, fantasy tends to live or die on its world-building. But great world-building, by itself, doesn't make a novel great. And sometimes, a fantasy book can spend so much time establishing its backstory, the story never seems to take off. That's why A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Scwhab is such a treat. Spoilers afoot...
I have to admit, I've had kind of a mixed experience with big fantasy novels lately — I've started a lot of books that were the first in a series, or a new standalone, only to get bogged down 200 pages in, as the book kept introducing more and more characters and bits of random info, while the main characters and major storylines just sort of spun their wheels. Everybody wants to front-load their fantasy sagas with as much complexity as possible.
And I'm a sucker for a cool setting with a fun, ornate story behind it — just as long as the frontstory is as compelling as the backstory.
So A Darker Shade of Magic feels like a priceless object, brought from another, better world of fantasy books. It has a seriously fascinating universe, but also manages to tell a story with enough excitement and momentum to make all of the world-building feel urgent and relevant. [Full disclosure: this book is published by Tor Books, which is also my publisher.] Although the book does take a bit of time to get off the ground, and a lot of exposition is front-loaded in the first 100 pages, it quickly starts to pay off.
So, here's a brief synopsis, with only minor spoilers. In A Darker Shade of Magic, there are four separate universes (like Fringe, sort of) and only a couple of magically gifted people can travel from one to the other. Each has its own version of London: there's Grey London, where magic basically doesn't exist. There's Red London, where everybody learns to understand magic. There's White London, where magicians is a savage force and people fight to enslave it, and to rule over everyone else. And then there's Black London, where a kind of magical apocalypse happened.
Basically, at some point in the past, Black London's experiments with tapping the source of magic went horribly wrong, and Black London had to be sealed off from the other three worlds. The people of Red London abandoned White London, leaving White London as a kind of firebreak between them and Black London.
The book has two main characters. There's Kell, one of the travelers who can go between the different Londons. Kell works as a royal messenger, delivering letters among the Kings and Queens of Red London, Grey London and White London, and he's been adopted by the royal family in Red London as their own son. (And Kell does have a brotherly relationship with the heir to the throne, Prince Rhy.) But Kell also has a bad habit of smuggling items between the different Londons, to sell or trade — not just for profit, but for his own personal collection.
Meanwhile, Delilah "Lila" Bard is a pickpocket and thief, who disguises herself as a man to plunder the streets of Grey London — but she dreams of getting her own ship and becoming a sea pirate.
Kell and Lila meet when Kell winds up with an incredibly dangerous magical object — and then Lila steals it from him. Soon, though, they find that they're caught up in a deadly conspiracy, and they have to rely on each other to survive and restore the balance of magic.
Part of what makes this book work as well as it does is the engaging main characters, who have the combination of good hearts and huge character flaws that's hard to resist in heroic fantasy characters. And the relationship between the super-privileged Kell and the hardscrabble Lila is pretty much a nonstop source of delight. There are lots of great exchanges like this one:
[Lila] pulled out the pistol and began to reload it. "Are you ready?" she asked, spinning the chamber.
Kell gazed through the gate at the waiting castle. "No."
At that, she offered him the sharpest edge of a grin. "Good," she said. "The ones who think they're ready always end up dead."
Or this one:
"I've got a question," Lila said, her pockets jingling suspiciously.
"Of course you do." Kell sighed, opening his eyes. "And I thought I said no thieving."
But also, once the story gets rolling full-tilt, which does take a few chapters, it's pretty much relentless in its pace and inventiveness.
Schwab's writing is engaging and vivid, conveying a sense of place but also imbuing objects and places with a lot of personality, which comes back to reflect on the viewpoint characters. You can read the first chapter here, and its evocative description of "our" London, as compared to Kell's own magical Red London, helps tell us a lot about Kell as well as the differences between the two worlds.
And the painstaking work that Schwab does to set up a few different believable worlds, as well as careful rules for how magic works, pays off over and over again as the book goes on — Kell's predicament becomes even more scary and intense, because the stakes feel clear and consistant, and each fresh development feels like it makes sense.
A Darker Shade of Magic is an addictively fun adventure, in which Kell and Lila are constantly on the run and trying to set right a situation that's going more and more wrong. The conceit of jumping from world to world isn't overused (partly because there are rules that cirumscribe it) and the villains are severely menacing and loathsome, while still having a legitimate point of view.
That said, there are definitely some flaws — one major subplot bubbles along for a large part of the book, without actually ever quite going anywhere. Lila's journey from selfishness to selflessness moves a bit too much like clockwork. The book's climax includes a moment where we're told that some major characters have been rescued from a danger that we were barely aware they were ever in. And so on.
But those are minor complaints about a book that kept me engrossed by its story every bit as much as I was fascinated by its complex, multilayered world. This is a great example of a fantasy book whose world-capital is backed by the full faith and credit of its mighty storytelling.
Heads up: We just made A Darker Shade of Magic io9's Book Club pick for April!