Plot summary: Kell is one of the last travellers - magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There's Grey London, without magic and ruled by the mad King George III. Red London - where magic is revered, and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London - where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London...
I think this book might have suffered under the weight of my expectations somewhat. I was so excited to read it. It looked so... different, such a unique and brilliant concept. And it is, I suppose. I love the idea of the three universes, all of which possess a City of London and that one tavern, situated in the exact same space geographically and with the same river flowing through the middle. However, they all have different rulers, different politics and (key point coming up) different levels of magic. It's genuinely brilliant.
The problem is that the actual content is not so unique. Whilst the overall concept is great, the story is peppered with really, really tired fantasy tropes. I'm not going to list them as I can't do so whilst avoiding spoilers, but I did roll my eyes a few times when a plot point popped up that also popped up in the last twelve fantasy novels I read. It's fine, and the plot points in question weren't out of place or silly, it's just that I expected more.
The prose is good; the book is actually written quite well, content aside. The narrative flows and the dialogue is unstilted. I haven't read anything else by Victoria Schwab, but she seems to have a talent for writing at least.
The world-building is good, but could have been better. The three Londons are such an interesting idea that I'd have loved more time spent on developing them before the plot kicked off. It was that very concept that made me want to buy the book in the first place but then we never really got the detail that could have made it really wonderful. A slightly longer book would have been worth it, I think. Tell me more about King George! And White London!
Is the character of... Lila... (I paid so little attention to her that I had to go back and check her name) really necessary? I can't help but feel that the book would be genuinely improved without her. I was hooked on the idea of sole, lonely traveller flitting between worlds and the blurb doesn't refer to the generic, strong, defiant-of-gender-roles character that no fantasy novel can do without. I could get on board with her if she served a purpose, but she doesn't. She's not particularly annoying but her presence changes the tone of the book into something much more YA-ish. I will say that I appreciate the lack of romance - it could have been shoved in so easily and I respect the author for leaving it alone.
I quite like the ending - it's more subtle than most and it doesn't comply with the generic fantasy formula. I also like that it's actually a standalone book, which makes a pleasant change. No cliffhangers, no unfinished threads and no sudden revelations. The series does continue in the next book, A Gathering of Shadows, but this book is complete in itself. I can't decide if I'm going to buy it or not. I'm really, profoundly non-bothered about reading the story, but then the covers are so nice and they would look so pretty all lined up on my bookshelf...
I guess my main complaint about A Darker Shade of Magic is that it wasn't what I wanted it to be and I know that's not really fair. I was expecting dark and twisted, and featuring more of King George III, who was named in the title, after all. Instead it's fairly generic fantasy that is already starting to slide out of my head. It's just that an excellent over-all idea wasn't really developed properly, and was slightly dragged down by tired fantasy plot points. I enjoyed reading it, but I'm not sure I'll feel the need to pick it up again.
Read a more positive review of A Darker Shade of Magic at Ivy Book Bindings.