Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London—but no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—trickier than they hoped. (goodreads.com)
My fellow YAcks chose good in February with A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC. A dark, character-focused story that dragged me through one similar world after another that were each unique unto themselves had me thinking of Ari Marmell’s Widdershins series, which I love. Rich worlds, great fantasy, great characters, no romance, and a plot that I dove head first into.
The story toggles back and forth between the points of view of Kell and Lila, who are on different tracks in life until a black stone comes into play and throws them unwillingly together. Lila is a survivor, having lived on the streets for most of her life. She knows when to fight and when to run away even though she may not want to. And she’s always wanted something bigger than what she had. When Kell is thrown in her path, she seizes him.
Kell is the beloved messenger of his king and queen who treat him as family and who love him as family but who know deep down that they basically own him. It’s a tough situation and one in which Kell has been able to tuck aside but when Lila comes into the story that gets harder to ignore. He has a bad habit of smuggling items between worlds, something expressly forbidden, and his adopted brother hates that he does it. But Kell does it anyway because it’s largely harmless. Until the stone.
The world that Schwab has created is both familiar and terrifying, unique and easily recognizable. Across all three worlds it’s called London for no discernible reason but that’s where the similarities end. Gray London is the one we know of. Red and White Londons are unique unto themselves, existing on the same foundation in basically was are different universes that can be traversed by certain people. They exist in a railroad apartment universe of Londons, is the best way I can think to describe it. Black London, the one completely consumed by magic is on one end. White London, left to fend for themselves against the seeping Black London and as a result have gone a little magic crazy, is next in the line of Londons. Red London, Kell’s London where the world has flourished with magic, comes after that, nestling White in between itself and Black, effectively using it has a barrier. Gray London is at the other end, farthest away from the source of magic and thus with the least amount of it. When traveling through them you can’t skip from, say, White to Gray. You have to go through Red first. Hence railroad apartment. Look it up.
Anyway, these Londons aren’t necessarily unique with their magic but they’re unique in how they coexist, or not, with each other. How the divide between them is precarious at best, how Black London is basically pushing at its confines to get out and it is leaking out. Undiluted magic is seeping into the other Londons and it’s causing some major issues, namely killing some people. This is the grand adventure Lila has been looking for and all Kell wants to do is stop this piece of magic that was, in part, responsible for felling an entire world back where it belongs, even if it means risking his own life. He doesn’t understand why Lila wants to go on this suicide mission.
The two of them really are adorable together. They snip at each other but it’s in a way that I feel could never get old. They compliment each other, the rational and irrational, speaking for each other when it’s rendered in a way that neither of them expected. Kell almost comes off as this do-good type of character but when you find out how he grew up, how he’s basically owned by his adoptive parents, and his dirty little habit, that do-gooder vibe falls right away. And Lila, who’s just a girl trying to survive on her own terms, forced to do some bad things in order to do just that and not really willing to compromise, has a heart deeper than most people’s. She just keeps herself guarded because of her past. They’re characters that are hard not to like.
And Schwab isn’t afraid to take them places that are darker than normal. She puts them into situations that could get them killed, that do get others killed, some of those others who are close to them. And they die in rather awful ways on top of that. I could live in this book all day long, watch Kell hop from one world to another. Watch Lila strive for your pirate ship. So much was introduced in this first book that I’m nearly salivating to get my hands on book two. Want.
If you like your fantasy well-crafted, your characters incredibly engaging and without romance, and your worlds terrifyingly vivid you’ll like A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC. It’ll suck you in and won’t let go.