My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Man, I really wanted to like this book. It has all the elements that I’m usually game to read from cover to cover instantly– a touch of magical realism, set in vaguely familiar proto-steampunky, parallel universes, evil guys, good guys, cynical guys. A plucky heroine from the bad side of town, with a heart of gold. The setting is this sort of mystical micro-universe where there are four known variants of existence– Grey London, Red London, White London, and a fourth, vanished Black London. Grey London (of course) is the London we all know from THIS world, the one in Britain, at the time of George III. Magic is almost unknown there. Red London, a much funner place where magic flourishes, a good dynasty reigns over a country that is not-England (although London stays London in all of them). White London is a harsh place where two descendants of Vikings(?) rule by murder and coercion. Black London was destroyed in a magical cataclysm that sealed the worlds off from one another– it is apparently the place where magic is sentient, seeking more power by devouring human hosts. I think? There are only two individuals that can transverse the boundaries of the Londons– they are the ‘Antari’, depicted with one solid black eye and one normal eye. The Red London Anatari is Kell, who spends his time as an errand boy for the Red London Royalty, and smuggling artifacts from various Londons. In addition, he is the property of the Royal Family, and adopted brother to the Red London Prince (Rye). Of course, Kell is considered a bit of a rogue but responsible enough to be riding heard on his womanizing brother Rye. Rye is a familiar trope in fantasy, a rogue and a wastrel (they say, we don’t see much of it) who is growing into the role of the future king who will one day have to take life seriously and blah blah blah. The other Antari is Holland, from White London (of whom, more later) Kell, the adopted Red Antari, is on a mission to White London (a nasty place with the Bad People in it) and he gets hoodwinked/set up/made a fall guy to pick up a package that turns out to have a half of a stone token from mythical (destroyed) Black London. He gets ambushed in Red London, flees to Grey London, and runs afoul of the OTHER Antari, the decidedly nastier Holland. Holland is apparently behind a conspiracy(?) to dominate? control? the other Londons, to open them up to conquest by proxy by White London, using the Wild Magic amulet (the Black Stone from Black London, which is a super magic weapon).
While Kell is hiding from Holland in Grey London, he encounters the other POV character, Lila Bard. Lila is yet another fantasy/steampunk trope, the plucky but lovable guttersnipe who dresses like a man and has the heart for adventure. She is a pickpocket, a cutpurse, and a girl makin’ it on the mean streets of almost-victorian London (George III is on the throne, yet they have revolvers in common use? Whaaaaah?) Anyway, she’s tough.. the author reinforces how tough as nails and bitter she is. Page after page. Awkward dialogue after awkward dialogue. We get it. Kell and Lila make an awkward alliance to bring the stone back to Black London where it will be safe, adventures transpire, lots of people get killed willy-nilly, and the vast extent of the betrayal of, well, you know, the bad guys, becomes clear. Except it doesn’t. There were two things that bothered me about this book. I like the basic concept just fine, I love the parallel Londons idea.. but man, the execution was clumsier than a new born chick running a marathon. The dialogue was very hackneyed in places. I think if I had a nickel for how many times I read “Lila.. (dramatic pause)… RUN!” .. well, I’d have a mess o’ nickels. And the motivation! What the heck? WHY do the bad guys do what they do? WHY? Sure, Holland is evil and twisted, but we never know what he thinks, he’s just a creepy ciper. And the mega bad guy.. he’s a monologing psycho from the old school, but what the hell made him so angry at Kell? Wasn’t Kell useful to everyone who wanted to talk or trade between worlds, just a while ago? Aren’t there only TWO of these guys? Why be angry at him? Why try to kill him? Just because you have an evil plan? So the Big Big Bad is hard to understand, therefore their motivations are murky and the plot and denouement kind are kind of a big muddle.
With that said, A Darker Shade of Magic did have some great, although not exactly original ideas, with the Red-Gray-White-Black London setting, the various flavors of magic, the Antari (all two of them) and how it all kind of lurched to an ending eventually. V.E. Schwab isn’t what I would consider a great literary stylist but I’m sure this series (and it will be a series, I checked) will go down well with the Young Adult crowd. For me, it started out well but became a bit of a chore to get through, so I’ll give it 3 stars.
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