Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Number of Pages: 400
Description: “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.”
By reading A Darker Shade of Magic, I have effectively managed to kill two birds with one stone. V.E. Schwab was on my list of ten authors I wanted to pick up for the first time, but I also put this specific book on my list of Harry Potter readalikes that I wanted to read this year. After having finished it, I’m glad I finally got around to giving it a try. While A Darker Shade of Magic suffers from some issues with its pacing and character development, it still has a unique premise that kept me engaged until the end.
A Darker Shade of Magic was facing an uphill battle from the very start because of its description. Based on the back of the book, I expected that I would be getting a fast-paced adventure through alternate dimensions. As a huge fan of any sort of media that likes to manipulate time and space, I was completely on board with the premise that was sold to me. Unfortunately, there’s a small problem here: Nothing in the book’s description actually occurs until a lengthy amount of time into the plot.
I am aware that descriptions are usually created by the publishing industry in order to convince people to pick up a book, meaning that V.E. Schwab had very little (if any) control over how her book was being marketed. That doesn’t change that I went into the title expecting a whirlwind adventure that, in actuality, doesn’t even start until about halfway through. This is a slow-paced and character-driven story that explores the consequences of dark and twisted magic and readers should be given the benefit of knowing that going in, instead of being hoodwinked.
Character-driven plots are something I often enjoy, but unfortunately, these sorts of stories are only as strong as the characters in it, and there are no standouts here. Kell has about as much personality as a piece of cardboard, with his only defining trait being that he’s good at magic. He is high-strung, unable to accept any sort of blame for his own actions, and doesn’t develop even the slightest bit throughout the story. Even still, I would read eight-hundred more chapters following Kell before I ever read anything else following Delilah Bard.
Oh, Delilah Bard. Where do I even begin here? I love strong female characters, so I appreciated Delilah when I first met her. She was mouthy and unafraid of putting Kell in his place when necessary, which had me cheering her on in the beginning. The further into the plot I got, however, I noticed that there are some less desirable traits about her that quickly grew on my nerves. I have said before in other reviews that a plot driven primarily by a character’s stupidity causes me a great deal of pain as a reader, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Delilah. She regularly has the choice between making a rational decision or doing something crazy that could get both her and Kell killed. Let’s just put it this way: She never picks the sane option.
At the end of the day, my issues with this book would have made this a one-star read if it weren’t for the saving grace of the multiverse aspect and magic system of this book. I loved learning more about how Red, White, Gray, and Black London function, as well as learning more about how people determine their magical abilities. While a lot of these topics weren’t discussed heavily until the second half of the story, the lore grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. My only complaint regarding the world-building is that I honestly would have liked more of it. Every ounce of information on the different worlds that I could glean from the pages was absolutely fascinating and kept me racing through the book until it was over. This is clearly where V.E. Schwab shines as a writer.
The biggest strength of the world-building is clearly the differences between the alternate Londons. Schwab had to do a tough job by figuring out how to bring four different versions of London to life and make them all interesting enough to stick out from one another, but she was wildly successful. Red London is bright and welcoming, whereas White London is frightening and cast in darkness, a shadow of its former glory. Honestly, I just wish the four Londons had been more relevant to the main plot, as the majority of the story still takes place in Gray London and there’s very little multiverse-traversing at work. If I could just have a book detailing the day-to-day life of Kell as he moves about the different Londons, that would be the perfect story for this universe.
A Darker Shade of Magic is hardly a perfect story, but there are moments of perfection within it. The world-building is strong and does a decent job of hiding how underdeveloped and uninteresting the characters are for the majority of the story. As with all other authors on my list of shame, I like to end my reviews by answering whether I would read them again. I will be reading A Gathering of Shadows, the sequel to this tale, but I don’t think I will continue beyond that book unless I see some sizeable character development or see more done with the central premise of the four Londons. This may simply not be the story for me, however, so I am willing to seek out another one of her series at some point in the future.
Final Score: 3/5
Most of the time, it’s difficult for me to quantify how much a book is like Harry Potter, but in this case, it isn’t hard at all. There are no real similarities here. A Darker Shade of Magic has a magic system and that’s about the only item that the two series have in common. There’s no magic school, no grand themes of friendship, no dark lord that threatens to destroy the world, and the magic systems themselves are even wildly different. I suspect that people compare the two series primarily because there’s some fairly extensive world-building at work and a strong fanbase behind them, but if that’s the only reason, that applies to the entirety of the fantasy genre and shouldn’t be used as a deciding factor.
The PotterAlikes project was started to find books that feel similar enough that it’s a reasonably safe bet that a fan of Harry Potter would enjoy these other stories, and that’s not the case here. That’s not to say that readers will hate this title automatically because they like another series, as I don’t think reading really works that way, but don’t go in expecting something at all similar to or on the same scale as J.K. Rowling’s works. That would just be setting up a perfectly serviceable story for disappointment.
Final PotterAlike Score: 1/5
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