Friday, June 30, 2017

Peps' Reading List: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I had A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows in my reading list for several months now. But it wasn't until they released A Conjuring of Light that I finally decided to read the book series by author V.E. Schwab (who writes as Victoria Schwab for the YA reader set). Which was a good thing, because you can't apparently stop reading after A Gathering of Shadows lest you languish in agony at not knowing what happens right after.

But for now... let's focus on A Darker Shade of Magic.

Kell Maresh is an Antari. And even in a world filled with magic, the abilities that grant him that title marks him as different. An Antari has the ability to travel to different worlds, each marked with their own version of London. Kell's world has Red London, filled with magic and prosperity. White London is steeped in chaos as its people try to hold onto what little magic is left in their world. Grey London has none at all. And then, there's Black London... a door which even an Antari couldn't and shouldn't open, lest what killed their world infect the others as well. There is a balance kept by the different worlds and measures are taken to ensure that the balance is kept, including the rule that forbids bringing items of one world to another. But rules have a way of being broken and one particular item might just bring doom to all of the worlds.

Of the three volumes of the Shades of Magic series, A Darker Shade of Magic is the one I liked the least. But please don't think I didn't like it... I do, I really do. It's just that the series progresses into a more compelling creature with every volume, which I would probably wax on at length and still fall short of conveying how much I love them when I get around to writing their individual posts. Strengths are aplenty in A Darker Shade of Magic and whatever weaknesses you might perceive in it actually pays off big time when you get to the succeeding books.

For the most part, A Darker Shade of Magic acts as a primer... introducing readers to the different worlds that the Antari can travel to. Kell provides most of the first volume's narrative, so it is through his travels that we understand the differences of the three Londons. We also learn a little bit about how magic works, especially for an Antari who commands the elements with ease along with the unique blood magic they can summon. Kell is considered a prince, adopted by the King and Queen of Arnes when he was marked with the one black eye Antari are known for. We read about his relationship with Prince Rhy, who acts like a rake, but cares for Kell like a true brother. And we also learn about Kell's discontentment about his life, with his hidden past prior to his adoption and his feeling that he doesn't belong in the royal family. These rather human thoughts lead Kell to make human mistakes, despite his significant powers... leading, of course, to trouble that doesn't just stop at his undoing, and instead threatens the kingdom he calls home and the very magic that keeps it alive.

Given the usual nature of first volumes of any book series, you can expect that the action doesn't always rear its head fully until the latter parts. The adventure takes time to build in A Darker Shade of Magic, but reading through pages of descriptions of the different Londons and Kell's state of mind drives home the point of what can be lost when something truly forbidden and dangerous crosses the borders of the different Londons. Though, I should point out that the earlier parts of the book are far from boring, because fleshing out the world (or worlds) of A Darker Shade of Magic and getting to know Kell make for a great read.

But you can't build a fantasy book series on a single character. Whichever world Kell is in, there are people to interact with. In his home kingdom of Arnes, he lives his life as a prince, albeit treating the king and queen with distant affection, but marginally more warm when it comes to his brother. He relishes the distance his travels allow him to get away from the rather unusual family life he leads, but traveling doesn't really isolate him. His work involves relaying messages between the rulers of the different Londons, which means that he gets to commune with King George III of Grey London, and the terrifying Astrid and Athos Dane of White London. With another world having a semblance of magic, Kell also occasionally meets Holland, the Antari of White London. And when Kell's sideline of smuggling goes awry in the worst possible way, he meets the thief Delilah Bard of magic-less London in his flight.

Of the characters that Kell encounters, it's those who lives in other Londons who capture the attention. Holland cuts an imposing figure and the Dane twins are just plain terrifying, so it's easy to guess where trouble might stem from. And then, there's Lila, who stealthiness as a thief is countered by a reckless nature and the need to court danger to feel alive, but is somehow able to complement and challenge Kell and his dark moods.

In as much as A Darker Shade of Magic is a primer for the series, with its world building and character introductions, it doesn't let you forget the real story at play. With magic, whether in abundance, waning or completely absent, playing a large part in the story, there's anticipation in how it would factor in Kell's story. Ideally, one learns from history, especially one that is as ominous as the downfall of Black London. If anything, the lessons that certain actions have consequences should be common sense. But no matter which London, human failings abound, and, sometimes, those consequences tend to be costly on a potentially apocalyptic scale. And the stakes are high... high enough that you wonder what's in store for volumes two and three, and you salivate at the idea that it could be so much more catastrophic than what Kell unwittingly unleashed in his world in the first installment.

Once you get past the preamble of introducing its world and chapters of Kell's self-commiseration about how he views his life to be unsatisfactory, things do pick up at a blustering pace. Once the proverbial shit hits the fan, A Darker Shade of Magic doesn't let up on the adventure. There's suspense as Kell and Lila runs away from and into danger, with enemies seemingly close at their heels or one step ahead. There're frustrating setbacks and way too intimidating challenges. And there's heartbreak and tragedy that would crush anyone's spirit. But at the other end of the spectrum, there's bravery, selflessness and a dose of recklessness that keeps our protagonists going. It's one hell of a ride once it starts going.

By the end of A Darker Shade of Magic, I had a feeling that it was going to be better. And, given that I've already read the entire series before I got around to writing this post... I can tell you that I am SO right in predicting that.

Happy reading!!

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