I discovered Neil Gaiman almost 30 years ago with the wonderful comic Sandman.
Now I’m seeing the next generation of writers inspired by him.
V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is a delightfully Gaiman-esque tale of London. Londons, to be exact.
Schwab, who also writes YA fiction under her full name Victoria Schwab, creates a world (or worlds) with four Londons Black London, White London, Red London and Grey London, each in their own parallel world. The cities have little in common apart from their names and geography.
White London is ruled by a despotic pair of twins who murdered their way to the throne and jealously guard any magic. Black London was destroyed by its own powerful magic. Grey London is our own world, circa 1800. And Red London is a balance of the magical and the mundane, a crossroads that communicates with the other Londons.
Kell is that communicator. The adopted son of the Red royal family, he is also one of the last Antari, or Travelers, Red London’s liaison to the other Londons, conveying messages between the worlds, from the Red Court to Grey London’s George III, and to the murderous Athos and Astrid, rulers of White London. He also does a bit of smuggling on the side, taking small magical items from one London to the other to sell for profit.
And that’s what gets him in trouble.
When Kell is asked to carry a letter from a White London refugee to her family, supposedly in Black London, he gets embroiled in a power play that will topple all the Londons.
Fleeing to Grey London with Holland, White London’s Antari, in hot pursuit, he is rescued by Lila, a young thief and wannabe pirate with an affinity for Kell’s magic. The pair partner to discover the source of the magical infection that is polluting all Londons and defeat the machinations of the power-mad White Londoners.
This book was pure joy. Schwab’s worlds are inventive and filled with vibrant characters, and she savors every word in her worldbuilding. Like China Mieville's best work, or Robert Jackson Bennett’s magnificent City of Stairs, the four Londons are as much characters as they are settings in A Darker Shade of Magic.
The conflict also takes a while to get moving, but that’s not a problem, there is as much joy in traveling through Schwab’s Londons and delving into the various character’s motivations as there is in the merry chase through the various Londons that occupies the latter half of the book.
And Lila positively blossoms as a character as the book progresses. She is still motivated primarily by self-interest, but she grows into a strong heroine, and may have a powerful secret of her own.
I suspect we’ll learn more about that when the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, comes out next year. ~~ Michael Senft