A Darker Shade of Magic is the kind of book that is difficult to review. My book club selected it to read, and I opened to the first page, expecting to love it. But, I didn’t. Next, I wasn’t sure. Then, finally, I did. So I suppose I could sum up my entire review right here: read this book, give it a chance to unfold before you judge it, nod your head vigorously upon finishing it, then proceed to buy the rest of the series.
V.E. Schwab does an excellent job of explaining her world of alternate Londons, with varying degrees of magic, and inhabitants whom all relate to the magic differently (or not at all). The rules of magic are clearly defined, allowing no single character an exclusive advantage, which serves to raise the stakes during the many magical battles. The main character, Kell, is immediately intriguing and likable, but the other characters take some getting used to, at first seeming to be exaggerated stereotypes of their archetypes. For example, there is Lila, an impetuous (and cross-dressing) thief, and Rhy, a spoiled and handsome prince. Both of Lila and Rhy spend the book being entirely, to mostly, predictable. Meanwhile, the villains are dripping with evil, making them easy to loathe, which in turn makes any sense of conflict over their demise impossible. Herein lies my main criticism, which is that the characters lack any significant depth. The only minor growth and development are seen in Lila, who grows progressively less selfish and skittish as she comes to trust (and perhaps care about) Kell. that It is that subtle change, along with the questions that are left open at the close of the story, that provide ample reason to come back for more.
My criticism is easily tempered by what I ended up loving most about the book: the emphasis on the importance of balance, and of truth. In this case, it is a question of the balance between degrees of magic, and the balance between pure magic and black magic in the heart of the magic wielder. But this could just as easily be the need for balance in real life, between obligation, and self-care. This is coupled with the importance of the truth, whether it be truth of intention or truth of feeling. It is the idea of balance and truth that allows Kell and Lila to defeat their enemies, saving their respective kingdoms, and what leaves open the menacing question leading to the next book: what happens when balance is thrown off elsewhere in the vast universe?