The older I get, the more I hope to relive those moments of sensawunda I experienced as a teen when I first began reading fantasy and science fiction. We’re more easily impressed when we’re young, but as we read more widely and begin to cover some of the same literary ground, a natural progression begins. Those feelings of awe and immersion grow ever more elusive. I’ve come to treasure it as a reader, and I’ve become much more attuned to it as a writer. Early on in a writing career, we’re often trying to master technique. Don’t get me wrong. Mastering technique is a noble goal, but it’s not all there is to the craft of writing. Not by a long shot. Just as important as technique (I might even say more important) are the ideas explored in our fiction, be they elements of world, character, magic, plot, or what have you. Unique ideas are hard to come by. It takes a lot of work as a writer, and a lot of searching as a reader.
Imagine my delight, then, when I came across V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. The book had been on my radar for some time. Or rather, Victoria as a rising star in fantasy had been. I didn’t actually know that much about the book itself. I kept meaning to look into it, but got sidetracked by this or that. And then kismet struck. I was sitting on a panel at Phoenix ComicCon last year, and so was Victoria. As panelists do, we introduced ourselves and our latest projects. And when it was Victoria’s turn, she told us about her series, which featured a story of intrigue and blood magic set in not just one London, but four.
Four Londons. Each with their own unique flavor. Grey London, where magic has faded. Red London, where magic is still strong. White London, where whoever happens to sit the throne would be wise to watch their back. And Black London, once a place of great ambition that fell to dark magic. I was instantly enchanted. I found myself nodding in appreciation, letting the possibilities of a myriad of Londons play through my mind.
See, this is why I love fantasy so much. It gives us a chance to toy with reality, or experience entirely new realities. My favorite type of story lately are those that have a sense of familiarity but that twist our perceptions of what truth is in that particular world. It’s why I was so intrigued by China Miéville’s The City and the City, a story where we might live side by side with our cultural nemeses, but only by mutually agreeing never to see or hear one another. It’s why I loved Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a tale that touched on so many familiar Slavic fairy tales but did so with a fresh, fanciful, far-reaching tale. (I am sooo Team Agnieszka!) And it’s the same feeling I got from Victoria’s summary alone.
I was tingling with excitement to dive in, but we all know that the idea is not the story. We’ve all read plenty of stories that couldn’t stand up to their cool premise. I needn’t have worried. I was instantly enchanted by the opening pages, where we meet Kell, a Traveler, one of the few who remain with the ability to move between the various Londons. Just read the first few pages, where we see Kell’s arrival in Grey London. We learn he has a coat that had “neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was of course impossible.” Kell turns the coat inside out over and over until he has the one he deems appropriate for his coming meeting with the king. Read on and you’ll learn more about the Londons and see just how deeply the story reaches. Each city may have its own unique history, but its a history intertwined with those of the other Londons. You’ll meet Lila Bard, a plucky cutpurse whose fate becomes caught in Kell’s considerable gravity. And Holland, like Kell, another of the mysterious Antari. And more, a cast of characters who enrich an already-rich plot.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a delicious read, and I’m so glad fate placed me on that panel so I could learn more about it. I no longer had any excuses not to pick up the book. And now that you’ve been properly introduced to it, neither do you.
Bradley P. Beaulieu is an L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award winner, and his stories have appeared in various publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His latest novel, With Blood Upon the Sand, marks book two in the Song of Shattered Sands epic fantasy trilogy. He also runs the highly successful science fiction and fantasy podcast, Speculate, which can be found at speculatesf.com.