A Darker Shade of Magic

by V.E. Schwab

Started: April 25, 2017 | Finished: May 14, 2017

In a world where there are four parallel Londons, White, Red, Grey, & Black, Kell, a powerful kind of magician called Antari, comes into possession of an object that must be returned to its home: Black London, a place that is rumored to no longer exist. The idea behind this book is fascinating and I wanted to love it, but I was left feeling absolutely, entirely, and frustratingly underwhelmed.

The story was entertaining enough to hold my attention, but I was never interested enough to be enthralled by it. To put it another way, I was never bored, but I wasn’t floored either. I do think this is an interesting concept (one I had been exploring myself long before hearing about this book) and would like to see this as a movie if only to see the world and the magic, but the world and the magic may have been it’s only saving grace.

I can’t say that this wasn’t a unique story. Like I said before, it has an interesting world with well paced world building, however, I found myself not really caring all that much about the events that were happening. The only reason for this that I can come to is the characters…

As with everything else in this book, the characters weren’t awful, but, at the same time, I just didn’t care. I had a hard time connecting with them and I don’t really know why. I keep trying to figure it out and I can’t. The characters felt real and relatively fleshed out, but I honestly couldn’t have cared less about them. The only characters that I really felt anything for were Holland and the kid guarding the door towards the end, and even then it wasn’t enough to make me cry for either of them (and I cry easily, so that’s saying something). For Holland, this may have been because his sympathetic side was never fully fleshed out. He was treated like a villain with hints of sympathy and not much else. Had we gotten a chance to explore more of the story from his point of view, maybe it would have made his story a bit stronger.

I can say that I did not care for Lila one bit. By that, I don’t mean that I hated her, but that I literally didn’t care at all about her or her problems. This might be because Lila clearly didn’t care about her own life or problems either. If she doesn’t care if she never returns to Grey London, why should I? If she doesn’t care if she gets hurt, why should I? If she doesn’t care about running headfirst to her own death, why should I? Not that a character like this can’t be successfully written. Schwab just missed the mark.

One final note on character: while I admired Shwab’s attempts to create a female character who rejected female gender roles, it felt forced and lackluster, and it was the only thing in this book that made me actually feel something, though it wasn’t what Schwab wanted me to feel. Everything Lila did felt more like one more reason for the reader to nod and say, “She’s not an average girl. How revolutionary!” She doesn’t wear a dress? How revolutionary! She carries weapons and is categorized as a cutthroat (something we never actually see, by the way)? How revolutionary! She wants to be a pirate? How revolutionary! I get it. Now who is she as an actual person and not as a check mark in your diversity list? It doesn’t help either that I would have been fine with it had Schwab not also fallen for the “women who like being women are bad” trope that is so easy to fall into with these sorts of characters. I find tomboys and masculine women in entertainment as refreshing as everyone else, but when they constantly belittle and think less of women who aren’t opposed to their own femininity it rubs me the wrong way.

First, so I can get it out of the way: there were so many typos in the edition that I read, especially towards the end. I just…you’re better than that, Tor.

Other than typos that should have been caught before being okayed for printing, just like everything else in this book, the writing was lackluster. It was shallow and underwhelming. I was rarely transported or got lost in the writing. And this is the part that just really confused me. Over and over again, I keep seeing/hearing people saying that the writing is amazing and beautiful, it blew them away and it’s “unique and a breath of fresh air” (yes, that is an actual quote that I came across). I don’t get it. Did I miss something? Did I read an abridged version? Did I read the wrong book? Have none of these people read an actual good book before? I mean, seriously, this book was just…basic.

I really don’t like talking about “show don’t tell”, so instead I’m going to steal from Emma Darwin and call it “evoke don’t inform”. While the world building was great, the characters weren’t and that’s because I was mainly informed that these characters had certain characteristics, but Schwab never allowed them to evoke those characteristics. Basically, she told me who they were, but I never really saw it. Especially Lila. I was informed time and time again that Lila was a cutthroat, but all she ever evoked was a scared little girl who thought she was tougher than she actually was. Which would have been fine if every other character wasn’t so surprised that this “cutthroat” who hasn’t actually cut any throats was scared about something. We saw her run more than we actually saw her fight. It was the same with Holland, I was informed that he was being forced to to go after Kell and the stone, but he never evoked any conflict or concern about doing so up until the end.

I was informed about a lot of things in this book, but the conclusions that I came to from what I was being shown rarely matched what I was being told.

I won’t go too far into this one, because, at this point, I’m just repeating myself, but yet again, it wasn’t horrible, but it also wasn’t great. I saw what was being described, but my reaction was constantly, “All right then.” I only stopped to fully absorb and admire a description twice through out the whole book, something that I did three or four times just in the prologue to A Game of Thrones. I think the most interesting description in the whole book may have been of Holland: “Perhaps it was the way he seemed to be made more of water and stone than flesh and blood and soul.”

I’m still not entirely sure how to feel about this book, even a month after having read it. I’m starting to wonder, though, if my lackluster feelings towards the story came from the fact that nothing felt pushed far enough. There were parts of the story that wanted me to feel something, but they just sort of suggested that I feel it rather than forcing me to. Everything emotional danced on the edge rather than taking the plunge and exploring it entirely. This left the book feeling shallow. I wonder if the events within this novel would have been more interesting if more focus would have been put on some of the darker elements of the story. If we had seen more of Holland and White London. If we had seen more of the stone really possessing Kell like it did towards the end. If we had actaully seen Black London instead of being told about it. The idea behind this story is interesting, but I feel as though Schwab was unwilling to push any further in order to really take the story where it needed to go. The result was a story that I was only half invested in and characters that I only half cared about.

On a final note: this is supposed to be an adult book (as evidenced by the V.E.), but the entire thing read so painfully like young adult. I’m not saying that young adult books can’t be good, but they just aren’t for me. I’ve yet to read a young adult book that has left me breathless. I don’t know what it is, but they just always seem to be holding back which just leaves me entirely underwhelmed and this book was, unfortunately, no exception.

Other Books in the Series:
A Gathering of Shadows — DNF – I read the first chapter and realized that I just didn’t care enough about these characters or this story to continue reading.
A Conjuring of Light — not even gonna bother.

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