Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Microreview [book]: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A trans-dimensional Georgian (mad king, not deep South) fantasy thriller

what a great cover
just saying

V.E. Schwab has written several 'young adult' SF/F novels ( a term I hate; are dull historical romances 'old adult', then?) as Victoria Schwab in case the name is familiar, but this latest lies more firmly into the 'adult' world. By this I don't mean it has nudity or extreme violence from the get-go (sounds of several readers clicking away..) but it tackles a complex (multi) world-build that requires not a little concentration. Having said this, it is fun, youthful and approachable. No Banksian reams of text, but straight into the story.

Kell is a young Antari, a rare breed of human gifted with magic, noticable by one of his eyeballs being jet-black. A visual trait that probably makes dating tricky, but is proof of his ability to travel between worlds. The worlds in question are several versions of Georgian London - the drained, rainy Grey London; cruel, cold White London; Kell's homeworld of magical, colourful Red London; and the mysterious lost city of Black London. As a self-confessed victim of wanderlust and trans-Atlantic dweller, Schwab does a good job of describing the thrill of travel. As a Londoner myself, I identified with the realistic Grey, and yearned for the warmth of Red. Each world contains its own rules, and rulers, and have very different environments and lay-outs, but were once linked freely through magic. Three centuries ago,  however, each were forced to sever the link as the balance between magic and humanity was tipped and magic -and the human lust for its power- threatened to destroy them all. 

Now decadent Red respects and manages magic, the fascist White subdues and restrains it, miserable Grey has all but forgotten it and Black is but a legend, lost to the magic that overwhelmed it. Only the Antari have the power to pass between, and they are employed by the monarchy of each city to deliver letters. When Kell is mysteriously passed a dangerously-powerful artefact from Black London, Holland, his vicious older counterpart in White, lays chase and Kell finds himself on a desperate quest to restore order, and save his own skin.

Joining him is Lila, a defiant and intelligent pick-pocket from Grey who stumbles into this hidden sect of spells and powers and leaps at the opportunity for adventure, the yang to Kell's yin. A too-convenient pairing, perhaps, designed to propel the plot, but an entertaining one and delivering the necessary heart and humour to what could have been a 'grey' bulk of exposition. Meanwhile, there is a palpable dread in White London and Holland's dark past, and enjoyable threat in the power of the artefact (despite too-obvious shades of Golem's ring).

It would be easy to pop A Darker Shade of Magic in with so many other fantasy novels - another drop in the rising ocean. Yet Schwab drew me in with an intriguing concept (and that wonderful cover art) and then kept me there with her confident prose. Her writing never dallies or wallows, but cuts to the chase, without losing the power to portrays her world(s) in detail. Occasionally her device of going back over key moments from a different perspective glares too awkwardly. An otherwise brilliantly-realised clash between Kell and Holland in particular loses some tension as a result of restarting from Kell's point-of-view, as if it had come back after a commercial break. Also there are perhaps some - sigh - young adult undertones to her reaffirming points, repeating phrases from earlier, as if to say, 'Remember this, kids'. Yet I must remove my Grey cynicism and step forward into the embrace of Red optimism and admit I am meanly searching for flaws to create a balanced-seeming review. The simple truth is I raced through this absorbing and imaginatively-rich thriller with barely a thought for syntax or structure. Schwab's writing just works, seemingly-effortlessly, disgusting the effort and skill beneath the surface. Like all good magic tricks.

The Math

Baseline Assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a keen sense of London's past and psychogeography; +1 superb characters that mirror the light and dark of the plot 

Penalties: -1 an ending that was a little too wrapped-up; given another part in a series must surely be coming, a cliffhanger may have been more rewarding somehow

Nerd Coefficient : 8/10 well worth your time and attention

find out why 8 is good, 6 ain't bad and 10 is rarer than the Antari here

Written by English Scribbbler, Maybe it's because I'm a Londunaaah, That's why I love London Taaahhhwwn... Since 2013