It is not often that you come across a well-written fantasy novel with a genuinely unique universe (and not another superficial rehashing of witches and werewolves), so I was immediately impressed by the opening chapters of this book. The richly constructed worlds (plural) and teasing mysteries will keep fans of The Night Circus engrossed. V.E. Schwab exercises a perfect balance between dropping hints and illuminating answers. By the end of the book, I had even felt a fleeting sense of worry that she would run out of sufficiently surprising twists for the next two novels in her trilogy. Assuringly, there are still some larger questions left unanswered, though not in the glaringly frustrating way as a cliffhanger would, or a story with too many loose ends. As I had said, Schwab has a knack for balance. Priste ir Essen. Essen ir Priste.
Contrary to some reviewers’ criticisms that the ‘superficial’ characters were difficult to connect with, I instead found layers to their pasts and personalities that I still cannot clearly grasp, which simply added to my excitement for the sequels. I do admit that Lila irritated me considerably during her first encounters with Kell, reminding me of a petulant child determined to meddle in matters she had no understanding of. But she won me over by the middle of the book. Certainly, she spoke and acted infuriatingly recklessly multiple times, and her moral compass was not exactly admirable (she did admit to enjoying killing, after all) but her wit and guile and just the right amount of bravado ultimately tipped the scales towards Badass and away from Hubristic Fool. And retrospectively, it gave her desperation to accompany Kell at the probable expense of her life (if not her soul) much more credibility than a more reasonable temperance would have done; suppose she was not as imprudent, would she have managed to force one of the most powerful magicians to let her follow him? All in all, I surprisingly ended up enjoying her subtle development the most.
As the sections and chapters had a habit of shifting between the events unfolding across the three Londons (some of which were obviously less gripping than others), the pace did slacken occasionally. A few diversions unnecessarily dragged out the time between each return to the main narrative, building suspense that frustrated more than it drove up anticipation. But in all fairness, Schwab’s talent for dropping a well-timed shadow of a hint kept me tearing through the pages. Whilst A Darker Shade of Magic does not present the sublime prose of The Night Circus or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, Schwab’s vibrant creativity stands out. In fact, for those who found Erin Morgenstern’s lengthy descriptions tedious, Schwab may offer a better balance between depth and pace.
Potential readers may be hesitant because A Darker Shade has been shelved as Young Adult by various sources. First, the overgeneralisation that YA is always insubstantial is already terribly presumptive. And ‘adult’ books are not necessarily complex or beautifully articulated either. But that is a topic for another essay. In any case, this book straddles the line between the two audiences (for YA and adult are audiences, not genres), with fantastical elements that will draw readers of all ages, but a writing style more commonly found in a so-called adult book. In that respect, it is similar to The Night Circus. So do not be put off – you will not regret it!
Favourite quote: “The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”
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