A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab is one of those books that everyone seems to have heard about. The acronym ADSOM is pervasive on Twitter, and anybody who mentions this dimension-bending YA fantasy does so in fangirling all-caps: and for very good reason.
Generally speaking, parallel dimensions are considered a science-fiction concept. It’s extraordinarily rare to see alternate universes outside of a strictly sci-fi or dystopian environment, which might be part of ADSOM’s genius. A Darker Shade is undeniably a fantasy book, complete with a cleverly realized magic system based on the traditional elements of fire, wind, earth, water, bone, and blood – with the latter only being wielded by a dying race of magicians called the Antari.
Kell is one such Antari, and his ancient powers allow him to cross between universes via doorways made with his own blood. Long ago, these doorways were constant fixtures between the four connected universes, but when dark magic overtook one of the universes, the doorways were sealed and the universes were forced to rely on Antari as messengers to keep the remaining three worlds in-touch.
The individual worlds are all unique in their own right, but have several common ‘sources’ of power that rarely change – the city of London being the center-point of all four universes. Black London was lost to dark magic; Gray London forgot entirely about magic (and mostly resembles ‘our’ universe); Red London allowed magic to thrive and enhance their culture; and White London enslaved magic, turning their throne into a bloodbath of successors.
Schwab has designed these worlds very cleverly, each having their own languages, their own subtle changes to London itself, and their own unique color palettes and feeling. It’s impossible not to feel dreary in Gray London, thriving in Red London, or terrified in White London.
The magic system, and method of transportation – requiring a ‘token’ from the world you wish to travel to – is believable and well-thought-out; the level of detail about magic is deep enough to feel complex, without dragging down the epic-fantasy route of language or grammar.
Kell is an enjoyable protagonist, his emotions perfectly balanced between loyalty to the Red Crown, and the desire to rally against the throne that treats him like a possession. The second character, Lila, is a plucky thief from Gray London, who relies on her guts and disguises to survive on a journey filled with magic and danger. Together, the characters complement eachother and balance the story perfectly.
A cleverly developed magic system, balanced characters, and a gripping plot full of bloody battles and tense escapes.
It takes at least a third of the novel before the ‘main’ plot is revealed.
A masterful combination of parallel universes and magic, drawing the reader deeper into the alternate Londons and their unique differences. A Darker Shade of Magic is well-deserving of its own reputation.