A Darker Shade of Magic is the first volume in V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series.
Kell is an Antari, one of two known world-walkers, able to travel between the four known alternate Londons, White, Red, Gray, and forbidden Black. His is a gift rare enough to make him a treasured possession of Red London’s Royal Family.
Officially, Kell uses his gift to serve as an ambassador between the three Londons — White, Red, and Gray — that are still in limited contact with each other. On his own time Kell likes to collect souvenirs. That’s forbidden. But moving minor trinkets from one world to another seems a harmless hobby.
Years earlier, the inhabitants of Black London lost control of their magic. Magic gained control, first of the mages and then of the world entire. The three other Londons could do nothing to save Black London. All they could do is seal the gates between the worlds, limiting contact to those with the world-walking gift, people like Red London’s Kell.
Persuaded to transfer a package from one world to another, Kell learns too late that the package contains a relic of Black London. Possession of the relic makes Kell a target. There is a conspiracy that spans worlds and the people behind it will stop at nothing to regain the relic.
Cross-dressing thief Lila Bard has no idea that that magic exists or that there are more Londons than the drab one in whose slums she dwells. To her, Kell is just another mark, someone whose pocket she can pick without consequence. She’s half right; she can pick Kell’s pocket … but there are consequences. Now Kell is hunting Lila, desperate to get the artifact back.
So are the people who were stalking Kell.
This is an oddly constrained world. Partly due to the fact that Kell is never given the chance to wander far from London in any world. It also seems as though only London matters in each world. This is too bad for White London, whose dwindling magical supply means the city is eternally covered in snow and dying. But the Dane twins who rule White London seem to have take Johnson’s
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
to heart, except replace “at all intellectual” with “a power-mad mage”. And “all that life can afford” with “everything two power-mad mages can force weaker people to hand over.” The same thing, really.
This tight focus does have the downside that when matters head south, it’s pretty easy to work out who has to be at fault; the cast of characters is smaller than the cast of a country estate cozy. For example, if it seems like a world walker is up to shenanigans and there are only two known world walkers, and one of them can be ruled out because he’s the protagonist, it’s not as if there’s a long list of suspects left. Although I suppose “known” is an important qualifier.
But then there’s one-eyed Lila, who lives outside the worlds of courtly power that define Kell’s life. As soon as she appears, what should have been a straight-forward scheme to reshape the world goes off the rails. She’s not playing the same game as the Dane Twins (White London’s rulers) or Kell himself. What she lacks in magical power, she replaces with ruthless focus on her goals.
This is an enjoyable, readable standalone. It is also clearly scene-setting for further instalments in the series. There’s the matter of Lila’s glass eye. A hint that she might be a world-walker too, one whose tell — an eye turned black by the magic that enables world-walking — was hidden by misfortune. I guess I’ll find out in the next volume.