Book Review: “A Darker Shade of Magic”

My fiancé purchased A Darker Shade of Magic, a novel by V. E. Schwab, at Powell’s a few months ago. It had been sitting on our bookshelf since then—he’s been occupied with other books recently—until I finished The Emperor’s Blades and needed something else to read (and blog about). It was the spine of the book that initially drew me to it: plain white with large, angular yet artistic text, it looked out of place among the many fantasy novels we owned. When I picked it up, I saw that it was published by Tor, one of my favorite publishers. They’re not known for their minimalist covers, but somehow, A Darker Shade of Magic was given a cover that is intriguing in its baseness. A figure in red steps between two circular maps. The book itself is lightweight for its size. It’s completely different from every other Tor book I’ve come across—and perhaps that was the intention.

A Darker Shade of Magic isn’t simply different in a physical sense. I find its combination of interdimensional travel, a Victorian era setting, rampant magic, and a high fantasy tone difficult to categorize. It’s clearly a fantasy book, but it’s not “urban” in the strictest sense, and it’s not quite a “period piece” because only a portion of the novel occurs in Victorian London. Perhaps the rock I’ve been hiding under recently is much larger than I thought, or maybe I’ve had my head in too many high fantasy books, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like A Darker Shade.

While the story has a straightforward, classic approach to the narrative structure and could even be divided into three acts in the same manner as a play, the writing style is refreshing and the characters intriguing. The first chapter in particular reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s style: grounding details decorated with snappy phrases that draw the reader in. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Schwab spent weeks writing the first few paragraphs alone. When read aloud, the sentences flow together with a delightful cadence not unlike the river that serves as a motif for the novel. Schwab’s writing is elegant, straightforward, and luxurious in its brevity.

For a novel to succeed, it needs magnetic characters with which the reader can identify. I can’t decide if A Darker Shade follows character tropes too closely, or if it achieves a balance between recognizable and unique. The male protagonist adheres to the strong-and-silent type: he is one of a dying breed of wizards, and takes his duty very seriously. But he also has his quirks, namely his penchant for useless baubles and trinkets from other worlds. The female assumes the swashbuckling rogue archetype with street-smarts. At times she can appear a bit too unflappable, but she gets herself into so much trouble over the course of the novel that it’s not necessarily a fault; the reader knows she’s done this before, and will try her damnedest to survive, even (or especially) if it means attacking with reckless abandon. The tone difference between her viewpoint chapters and the male protagonist’s serve as welcome breaks in what could have been a much darker, duller story.

Of course this novel isn’t without its faults. One villain in particular seemed lacking in motivation, and a few side characters faded from my memory after a few chapters (even though they were important later on). Tor employed an excellent copyeditor who made very few mistakes throughout the novel, but I tripped over the language at times. That said, I would definitely read this novel again—and will hopefully get my hands on its sequel soon. All in all, A Darker Shade of Magic provides a fascinating conceptualization of Victorian London intertwined with fantastical magic. I highly recommend it for readers looking for a break from high/epic fantasy, or are looking to test the waters of fantasy/period literature. 4/5 stars.