'A Darker Shade of Magic' Review: New Book by V.E. Schwab Will Satisfy Fantasy Readers in Love with Detail, May Prove Unsatisfying for Genre Outsiders

a darker shade of magic book
The cover to "A Darker Shade of Magic" by V.E. Schwab. Tor

A Darker Shade of Magic, the new, highly anticipated fantasy novel by V.E. Schwab, is the kind of book on which whole new subcultures are built. Though the book was just released on Feb. 24 it’s easy to imagine the immense community of cosplayers, artists, and fanfic that A Darker Shade of Magic will inspire. Though it eventually develops a plot, A Darker Shade of Magic feels more like a vibe, a luxuriant collection of settings, characters, and magic that will have fantasy fans wallowing. Your enjoyment of A Darker Shade of Magic will depend on what you search for in fantasy novels.

The Right Reader for A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic opens in one of the four overlapping Londons, each occupying the same space but separated by magical borders that can only be crossed by magical Antari. One of the protagonists of A Darker Shade of Magic is just such a being: an Antari messenger for the Royal court of Red London. The four Londons include the mundane Grey London, the magical Red and White Londons, and the lost Black London, which was sealed off after being consumed by a plague of overwhelming magic. Our Antari, Kell, joins forces with Delilah Bard, a pickpocket from Grey London, to prevent Black London’s magical plague from overwhelming the other worlds.

While there is a plot to A Darker Shade of Magic, the novel takes its time getting there, preferring to flesh out the romantic settings and powers that will make A Darker Shade of Magic a hallmark of world-building for the right reader.

So who is this “right reader” for A Darker Shade of Magic?

Take the “Jacket Test” to find out. Here’s the description of Kell’s magically enchanted jacket that opens A Darker Shade of Magic:

“Kell wore a very peculiar coat.

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. Not all of them were fashionable, but they each served a purpose. There were ones that blended in and ones that stood out, and one that served no purpose but of which he was just particularly fond.

So when Kell passed through the palace wall and into the anteroom, he took a moment to steady himself – it took its toll, moving between worlds – and then shrugged out of his red, high-collared coat and turned it inside out from right to left so that it became a simple black jacket. Well, a simple black jacket elegantly lined with silver threads and adorned with two gleaming columns of silver buttons.”

Do you lust after this magic jacket? Does it make you whisper to yourself, “that is so cool.” Then A Darker Shade of Magic is for you.

If you don’t really give a hoot about the magic jacket, then A Darker Shade of Magic will become a frustrating read.

It’s not about the clothing; A Darker Shade of Magic fetishizes fabric and shiny buttons less than George R.R. Martin and his love of the word “brocade” in A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Rather, it’s that A Darker Shade of Magic adores the hallmarks of fantasy and lavishes constant attention on them, giving the reader a sensation of wonderment and wish-fulfilling adventure.

It’s hard not to over-use “romantic” in describing A Darker Shade of Magic. Both of the main characters, the magical Kell and the roguish Lila, are designed to inhabit and love. Each of them come with mysterious pasts, relatable dreams, and eccentric physical flaws that you can just sense are mega sexy-hot and cool looking, even as A Darker Shade of Magic insists to you that they’re not. Kell and Lila are the kind of thin, dark, and brooding outsiders that are just too damn cool to actually feel like outsiders. Here’s a taste: both main characters have eyes that are each a different color and the main goal of Lila’s pickpocketing (itself the most romantic form of thieving) is to become a swashbuckling pirate.

While A Darker Shade of Magic offers unlimited opportunities to luxuriate in these just-so fantasy details, it winds up hampering any sensation of danger. The threat is very real, both from the magical Black London artifact busy infecting the other worlds, and from the dangerous agent of the White London throne, an Antari named Holland. Once A Darker Shade of Magic turns dangerous the violence and mounting stakes are all impeccably developed, as Lila and Kell outrun both Holland and a spreading, body-snatching magic. Still, it can’t help but feel weightless in the face of A Darker Shade of Magic’s true passion: luscious detail. It’s unlikely you’ll ever fear too much for Lila and Kell’s safety in A Darker Shade of Magic, and those characters who die are exactly the ones who can, like a succession of Uncle Owen and Aunt Berus whose deaths feel more calculated for impact than evidence of real danger.

Whether this sounds like a bug or a feature separates readers who will be grabbed by A Darker Shade of Magic and those who will be left untouched and perhaps a little frustrated. V.E. Schwab’s new novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, is often beautiful and always generous in both world-building and eye for detail. If you can revel in the kind of fantasy book that takes a detour from the height of plot danger for a jaunt to a masquerade ball, complete with a shopping trip to find the perfect costume, then A Darker Shade of Magic will prove the perfect romantic adventure. 

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