I initially intended to review just the first book of this series – A Darker Shade of Magic – but I got caught up in the story and read the rest of the trilogy without a pause. that makes it difficult to fairly review one book, so this review is going to focus on the series as a whole.
There is more than one London. A city of the same name occupies the same place in several different worlds, and those who have the right magic can pass between them. There’s a grey, Georgian London with no magic, and a red London where magic is everywhere. There’s a white London where magic is hoarded and hunted, and a black London where no one goes any more.
As one of the last two people in the worlds with the right blood, Kell carries messages between the worlds. Taking anything else from one London to another is forbidden. But there are always people who are prepared to persuade, pay, or threaten him to carry other things between the worlds. Dangerous things.
Shades of Magic is a series about unintended consequences, swashbuckling, and elemental magic. As should already be clear from the fact that I read all three books in rapid succession, I rather liked it.
The series feels fresh, which is impressive for fantasy set in London. The key elements have, of course, appeared in other places, but not in this combination and not in this way. It’s a complex setting, with complex rules, and that’s before the major characters all get introduced. The first few chapters of A Darker Shade of Magic are a little confusing – you need to give it a little while, take things on faith until the gaps get filled in. It does all get ironed out, and once you’ve established who is who and what is going on, the story really gets started.
The series as a whole is hugely entertaining. There’s a blend of action and intrigue, with
compelling characters trading snappy dialogue. It’s definitely reminiscent of old pirate books and films, where everything is just a little brighter, a little better than the real world, and characters and plots snap together in a satisfying way. I found myself thinking about the series when I couldn’t read it, playing over key moments in my head.
One of Schwab’s great strengths is in description. The elemental magic that is most commonly used by characters is vividly realised, with gorgeous descriptions of conjured fire or quickened seedlings. The writing is equally vivid when it’s not as pretty, making magical tortures or the experience of possession seem terrifyingly real.
The tension ramps up between books, increasing the stakes without becoming totally ridiculous, and the seeds of eventual antagonists are established early on – very little comes out of nowhere. Throughout, characters mostly make reasonable decisions – there’s only one character who falls into the pattern of making terrible decisions that advance the plot, and that does make sense in character. I still don’t particularly care for that character though.
The biggest issue with the series is one of pacing. The third book involves tying together a lot of disparate plot lines, and the main thread gets lost for a while as the characters solve problems from earlier. There are scenes which seems as though they belong in earlier books, and scenes which seem to add complications for little payoff. With that said, this is a problem that is limited to the final book only, and to one section of it. It’s more noticeable, I think, because the rest of the series doesn’t drag at all.
One other thing that deserves mention is how socially progressive the series is. I’m not saying that books are better if they showcase particular social attitudes, but speculative fiction is increasingly doing so, and doing so badly. Shades of Magic is a series in which misogyny and homophobia are not really issues, which isn’t unusual for fantasy. What is unusual is that Shwab isn’t preachy or ostentatious about it; it’s a normal part of society within the books. If you want a pattern of how to accomplish modern social attitudes in fantasy without beating your reader over the head with them, Shades of Magic is what you’re looking for.
Overall, I really enjoyed this series. It’s everything that fantasy should be – fresh, entertaining, and captivating. Pacing quibbles aside, I’d absolutely recommend it.