A Darker Shade of Magic is an enchanting and addictive novel. Dark, inventive and intriguing, it combines an incredibly strong fantasy voice with great world-building and compelling characters to create a new fantastical/historical adventure that shouldn't be missed.
The most impressive thing about A Darker Shade of Magic is the world building. The novel spans three different versions of London -- the peaceful and magic-filled Red London, the bland magicless Georgian Grey London (aka our London), and the terrifying White London, where magic is fading and people hunger for power. Our protagonist, Kell, is one of only two people able to travel between these worlds -- officially as an ambassador, unofficially as a smuggler of magical artefacts. We visit all three Londons early on, and each of them is vividly depicted, with Schwab making us believe in these multiple worlds in a way that some writers fail to do with one.
Meanwhile, lurking in the background is Black London, a realm destroyed by magic and locked away. When Kell accidentally smuggles a dangerous magical artefact from this Black London into Grey London, he must must fight his way back to that forbidden kingdom before anyone else learns of the artefact's existence.
Schwab writes fantastic characters. Kell is a solid male protagonist, but my favorite was the female protagonist, Lila, a pickpocket who dreams of being a pirate who steals her way into Kell's adventure. Brave, determined, no-nonsense and fiercely moral (within her own code, of course), Lila feels like she can barely be contained by the pages of the book. She's fun to read about, as an aspiring Georgian pirate is bound to be, but she also feels intensely real, the perfect mix of fantasy adventure and genuine emotion.
Most other characters in Schwab's world are fleeting presences, as necessitated by the constant movement of the plot, but these are all vividly written too, so that even characters only present for a page feel immediately real and compelling.
The plot itself starts out slightly slow, but that hardly seems to matter. The world and the characters are enjoyable from the start, and although I found myself wondering when the plotline described on the back cover would begin, I was gripped by the book either way. Plus, as a bonus for anyone who likes getting absorbed in new worlds but has a case of series fatigue, this is the start of a new series, but it works incredibly well as a stand-alone novel too.
All in all, this is one of my favorite discoveries in a good long while. If you enjoy the magical Victorian(-ish) aesthetic and are looking for a new adventure to read, A Darker Shade of Magic is definitely worth your time.