With A Conjuring of Light, the third book in the Shades of Magic series, on its way, let’s take a look at the brilliant beginning of the trilogy…
Kell, the adopted prince of the Arnes royal family, has the rare power to hop between different worlds. He hails from Red London, where magic is abundant, but there is also the magically-starved White London and Grey London (our ordinary magicless world). But when he encounters a dangerous artefact and the spirited pick-pocket Lila Bard, a Grey Londoner, Kell will have to face the darkness from the dead fourth world – Black London…
First things first, V.E. Schwab must be one of the best fantasy YA writers around right now and this series is her jewel in the crown. Schwab is one of those writers who makes weaving a great story together look easy. Her prose is descriptive yet efficient, spending a lot of time in the characters’ heads but without the story’s pacing ever suffering. Schwab also has a good line in thrilling action sequences, as there are some thrilling moments where Kell goes on the offensive with his magic or Lila gets deadly with her knives.
There is no shortage of great ideas in this novel either, with the story being a potent blend of magic, parallel worlds, fantasy royal drama, historical fiction and more. The different Londons are sketched with economy but they are still very distinct. Most fantasy novels only create one fantasy land to play with but Schwab stretches her imagination to two – Red and White London – as well as sidelining with a bit of period fiction – recreating Georgian England with Grey London.
It’s the premise of the novel that reels you in, but it is Schwab’s characters that will keep you hooked. Kell and Lila are dual protagonists, with the book carved between their perspectives. Brilliantly, each is just as vibrant as the other. An exotic, magic prince with a jet black eye and an impossible coat with many sides, Kell is often scowling and moody but only because he feels the pressure of his position. Meanwhile, Lila is a sharp-witted cutthroat and wannabe pirate, who hides her vulnerability behind a fierce mask. They are great on their own and even better when bouncing off each other, as their slowly growing affection for each other is nicely handled.
As often happens in first installments of book series, there are elements and characters that feel like they need fleshing out. Kells adopted brother Prince Rhy is immensely likeable but he doesn’t get enough ‘screentime’. Likewise, I would have liked a little more depth from the villainous Holland. Moreover, the stone from Black London is a macguffin of the highest order – it’s a little unsubtle as a plot-driver, then, but it definitely does its job.
A Darker Shade of Magic has everything you could want from a fantasy novel. A terrific world and mythology to explore, two strong leads and it is all told with heart and humour.