Reading V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic

Reading V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic (Part 1)

Hello, friends, and welcome to Reading V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic! It is summer and I need a new series to dive into. I’ve been meaning to pick up V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic for ages, but life has continually intervened with my plans.

No. Longer. No longer, I say! (Sorry, getting overdramatic, time to pull back on the coffee consumption.)

I’ve never done a “read,” only rereads, so this should be an adventure. Let’s roll up our sleeves and dive right in.

The book begins with a quote from a character I assume I will learn about later on:

“Such is the quandary when is come to magic, that it is not an issue of strength but of balance. For too little power, and we becomes weak. Too much, and we become something else entirely.

—Tieren Serense
head priest of the London Sanctuary

Well, that was ominous. Here we go.

One: The Traveler

I

Summary

It is the year 1819. We meet a young man named Kell, who wears a magical coat that has several different sides he can turn to for different environments. He has just stepped through a doorway into a different world, and only ever emerges in the exact same spot he occupied in the previous world (whether or not the different world have the same landmarks and structures). He is now in Windsor Castle. In the next room sits King George III, a blind and sickly man who has been waiting for him and the letter he will deliver from “Red London.” The king always thinks that the letters from Red London smells of roses (others find different flower scents), but the place only smells of home to Kell.

The letter—sent by the queen of Red London, Emira—is a short courtesy, so Kell embellishes the letter to prevent King George from knowing it. He promises to give the royal family George’s regards, and makes to leave, as he is running late for an appointment with the Prince Regent. Before he can go, the king insists that he indulge in a ritual, started by their very first meeting; King George proffers a coin from Kell’s world and tells him that the magic has gone out of it, demanding a new one. Though it is forbidden, Kell always exchanges the old coin for a new one. Kell does the ritual to transfer him somewhere else, creating the doorway with is own blood, freshly drawn.

Commentary

Have I mentioned that one of the easiest roads to my heart is descriptions of clothing? Clothes are important (even when they’re not magical), and coats are a particularly telling vestment where characters in fantasy and science fiction are concerned. Coats are powerful. Coats are statements. Coats tell you a great deal about a person. So the fact that Kell needs several tells you a great deal about him, straight off. The fact that he wants to feel a little fancy (that silver thread in the black coat) even when he’s around important people he’s not supposed to outshine is also very telling.

Also, Kell, gimme your coat.

So there’s a lot we don’t know about Kell, but it’s possible he doesn’t know either. He has a monogrammed knife with the letters K and L on it, the K presumably being for him. It says he doesn’t remember the life that this knife came from, but there’s no indication as to whether that lack of memory is metaphorical or literal. So that’s interesting. Here are the things we can glean from this first chapter, or that we know for certain; Kell seems to be an impish sort of person who has been tasked with delivering correspondence between the monarchs of different Londons, who are meant to be the only people who know of the existence of other worlds. He has the ability to perform magic, and he’s a little bit of a softy. I mean, he makes up more to his queen’s letter to keep the King George from feeling neglected, and has an ongoing game of take-a-penny-leave-a-penny going on with the guy.

Okay, not even a chapter in, but I’m calling it—Kell likes Prince Rhy, that is a thing or they are a thing, there is a thing happening here. You don’t add addendums to royal letters about how you are solely responsible for keeping the guy safe and preventing him from marrying “unsuitable” women unless you are super into that boy. You don’t go on in your own head about you’re beginning to sound like someone else unless you spend way too much time with them. *reaches out with grabby hands for my queers*

Three Londons: Red (magical and doing well), Grey (non-magical), and White (starving somehow, also smells like blood, which sounds pretty bad). Black London which is gone, so we know from the start that the state of these three realities is not absolute. Something might change. Everything might change.

Is Grey London (clearly this world is Grey London, since it has no magic) our London, or is it simply close to what our world is like? It seems like it could be ours—King George III was a year away from death in 1819, struggling with mental illness while his son George ruled as Prince Regent. At this point, the king’s wife is would have passed in the previous year and he would be all alone. Also, the fact that Grey London smells like smoke to others would make sense, given that we’re at the latter end of the Industrial Revolution. Hm.

The use of George III is always interesting because history has framed him in every possible way (the most popular current use probably being Hamilton, where Georgie is depicted with a comical lack of deference). Being the sovereign who was in charge while sweeping cultural change was afoot and so many wars were won and lost makes him a contentious fellow, and he is often played according to whatever the story is intending to impart about the crown and imperialism and British might. But here, he is simply an old man whose better years are far behind him, imprisoned in his own house. It’s sad and painfully human, and it’s a fascinating place to begin.

The specificity of Kell’s magic is clearly important. We learn that the symbol Kell draws in blood has to be crisp otherwise it doesn’t work, and that he has learned that lesson the hard way. No idea whether than means you get injured or spat out in the wrong place (or no place at all), but it doesn’t sound nice. I have to admit a personal fascination with the question of how much blood it takes to write on walls and floors and various hard surfaces. It’s a common enough device that I’m always trying to calculate how much you’re using up whenever I see it on television or picture it. I should probably stop that. It’s kind of a creepy habit.

 

II

Summary

Kell drives in St. James. The Prince Regent is waiting for Kell and berates him for being late. Kell is meant to visit the king first, but the prince seems to think this is a bad idea, as King George sometimes goes on about the other Londons or believes he can do magic. Kell delivers the letter from his queen, and the prince reads it and completes his reply. Kell irritates him by putting out candles as he drums his fingers on the table (clearly using magic). The prince requests that Kell walk with him, which Kell must agree to. He then tells him to stay for dinner, but Kell advises against putting him on display, letting his hair fall from his eye to reveal that one is utterly black—that eyes is the mark of a blood magician, who are called Antari.

Kell reminds the prince of why the worlds are separate; in the past, there were many doorways between them, but then one of those worlds—Black London—fed on magic until it consumed them entirely. Kell tells the prince that Grey London lacks temperance and is power hungry just as Black London was, which is why it has been made to forget magic. With that fear stoked, the prince gives Kell his letter and sends him on his way. Kell walks through St. James’s Park, looks down at the water and stills it with magic, thinking of how Prince Rhy teases him for looking at his reflection. Kell looks at his reflection to get a glimpse of his eye, though he doesn’t say so. Leaving the park, he comes to Westminster Abbey and marvels at how Grey London is resistant to change, unlike his home where magic makes it easy to change everything constantly. He changes his coat to something more plebeian and walks into a tavern.

Commentary

So Kell doesn’t much like the Prince Regent, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s just kind of a jerk who doesn’t care that his father is wasting away. If Grey London is our London than he has been ruling in George III’s place since about 1811, and he was kind of a piece of work, as monarchs go. (Though, if memory serves, he was a dandy who was buddies with people who sort of created Regency fashion, so that’s pretty cool.) Also super mean to his wife. Anyway, this is all beside the point, the point is that given the choice to speak to Prince George or his dad, I would also prefer dad. I would also prefer to troll royalty by putting out all their candles in an extremely innocent fashion.

So Prince George wants to Kell to come to some sort of dinner, which Kell warns him off of, and while it seems good that Kell avoids it, it leaves us with the big obvious question—what the hell does the prince want him to stick around for? We find out that one of Kell’s eyes is totally black, the mark of being Antari, having magic. We learn that the Grey world has been made to forget magic, but we don’t know when that forgetting started. My assumption is probably centuries ago, or millennia… when stories about magic were common, before they became fairy tales and folklore.

Kell leaves the prince and heads into St. James’ Park, which I’ve had a personal fondness for since reading Good Omens as a smaller person. Every time I’ve gone to London, I have inevitably paid that park a visit because rituals are fun and it’s an oddly soothing place to be. Unlike Central Park in Manhattan, which is designed in hopes that you’ll forget you’re in a city, St. James’ Park knows precisely where it is, and gives you glimpses of the regal part of London through strategic trees. So many gorgeous willows there.

Kell’s memory of Rhy telling him that he’s not that handsome every time he catches Kell looking in a mirror further cements my belief that they are a thing of some sort. I cannot be wrong about this.

There’s a little window into Red London as Kell looks at Westminster Abbey and thinks about how Grey London is particularly resistant to change. I love the idea that having magic so easily makes a people and a world inclined to constant cycles of creation and destruction.

 

III

Summary

The tavern is called the Stone’s Throw and Kell appreciates it because it exists, in one form or another, in every London. People who still believe in magic in Grey London flock tot he spot because they know there’s something about it… and of course, some are there because they’ve heard of the “magician” who sometimes shows up. Kell has an element set with him—a game owned by everyone in Red London, a board with five elements in it that allowed children to mess around and figure out which elements they were drawn to in magic. Kell has brought the game for a client, a Collector. Instead, an Enthusiast sits down next to him. (Kell doesn’t like Enthusiasts because, unlike Collectors, they want to use the items he brings over.) This fellow is named Edward Archibald Tuttle the Third, but he goes by Ned. He wants some earth from Red London, believing that it will allow him to walk between worlds like people used to.

Only Antari now have the ability to travel between worlds, and there are fewer of them all the time. Kell nudges the game toward Ned and tells him that if he can will one of the elements from the box without touching it, he’ll bring him some earth. Ned picks water, which is one of the easier elements—fire is hard and bone is hardest. Ned chants over the water, but can’t do anything with it and insists the game is rigged. Kell proceeds to move each of the elements in turn, proving otherwise. Ned shoves away from the bar, but Kell stops him, asking what Ned would give for that bit of earth. Ned offers money, but Kell doesn’t take money (he has no use for money from other worlds). He asks for something that Ned couldn’t bear to lose, then tells him he will be back within the month. Ned is displeased, and leaves the bar.

Kell’s Collector arrives for the game and gives him a silver music box in exchange; Kell appreciates the boxes from Grey London that have to run on intricate gears instead of enchantments. He takes it and leaves, walking out into Grey London and finding a shop where he makes his blood mark to head home.

Commentary

Knowing about Kell’s little side business (which is clearly not a thing he’s supposed to be doing), I’m going to assume that he stole the Prince Regent’s unused quill to barter back home? Unless he wants it for some type of magic. Or compulsively steals stuff for fun.

The idea of Stone’s Throw being a tavern in each world kind of feels like when you go to different towns and find that one dive bar that’s exactly like all the other dive bars you’ve ever been in. You have to appreciate the consistency, if nothing else. We get a name-drop in Kell’s internal monologue about someone named Holland, who is also Antari. Apparently they are becoming rarer and rarer the longer that the doors between the worlds are largely closed.

Ned, buddy, if you’re so interested in getting a little bit of earth from Kell’s world, why didn’t you try to move the dirt in the game? Just, if you feel like you’ve got an affinity for something, maybe go with that and not a different element? You kinda did this to yourself. Kell’s request that Ned give him something he doesn’t want to lose kind of reads like a deal you would get from a faerie—perhaps all the old tales about faerie rings and so on were really just stories about people from Red London in the past?

Um, so… bone magic? Controls bodies? That sounds creepy as all get out. Are we talking like blood bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender, or is this different body control?

Kell notes that magic doesn’t have a specific language, unless we’re talking about the Antari language he is using for his spells. It’s not familiar to me, which makes me curious as to whether the language was entirely created for the book, or if Schwab is messing with some real-world languages to get this one. More research in my future….

Emily Asher-Perrin wonders what it would take to create a reversible 6-look coat without the magic part. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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