The Short Version: Across four versions of London – all of them sharing only the name and a river cutting through them – magic is real. In our Grey London, King George III has gone mad and magic is nearly gone. But in Red and White London, it thrives (albeit in different ways), and in Black London, it was so strong it wiped them out. Kell, one of the few of a dying breed of magicians who can travel between Londons, believed Black London to be a myth – until he ends up with a mysterious talisman and on the run from a murderous plot…
The Short Version: First of all, look at that cover. Just look at it. Goodness me, it is a thing of BEAUTY. I’m pleased to see fantasy covers no longer getting the short shrift on the design side of things – this isn’t the first, nor is it the most prominent… but it’s an excellent example of just how beautiful a cover can be, regardless of what the book’s about.
And the book is pretty wonderful too. Schwab does a terrific job balancing world-building with actual plot – and conceptually, she has her work cut out for her. Four Londons, all of them entirely different except for the fact that they’re called London and a river cuts through them – so that the idea of “four Londons” is, in fact, a bit disingenuous. It’s a bold choice, far more interesting I think than just saying “look, this London has magic and this one doesn’t” while keeping the streets the same. It’s a fascinating idea; that the multiverse, or at least the four worlds available to Kell, would look more different than similar. There’s a cognitive dissonance by calling a place London (somewhere that I, and I’m sure many of you, know well) and implying that it sits quantumly next-door (a little The City & the City, if you want it to be) while also making it fundamentally different, to the point that it almost “shouldn’t” be called London. It activates your brain a little bit. It’s not Miéville-level trickery, but it’s smart work.
The worlds she builds – Red, Grey, and White – are all distinct, too. As mentioned, the book does have a good share of scene-setting (hinting at, one can only hope, this being the first in a long series of adventures) but it’s beautiful scene-setting. The idea of Red London’s river glowing red with magic and the palace bridging the river sent gorgeous images into my mind, making me think of a city that looked like London crossed with Paris. White London’s creepiness was nearly visceral, the way the city is described. And Grey London – our London, complete with a mad King George III – felt… well, exactly like you’d want it to. I liked the tricks of the trade, as it were; the idea that only a small subset of people can cross between worlds, that magic is split into five subsets, that certain locations are ‘the same’ across worlds, even the boogeyman story of Black London. It makes for a deliciously original fantasy.
The characters are a little less original, although not to the novel’s detriment. The supporting cast is all pretty much what you’d expect; the creepy muscle, the rogueish prince, the gruff innkeep with the heart of gold. But they all feel germane to their worlds and, by extension, to the world of this book; that is, they’re nothing new but they don’t need to be, nor should they be. They are bedrock to help get used to the weirdness of this world we’ve found ourselves in.
And we have Kell and Lila, who are a little more original in their makeup and who make a pretty good pair. On the surface, they seem as expected as the rest of the cast: an orphan magician adopted by the royal family but not quite one of them and a brash young lady orphan turned street thief. But they both have mysterious unplumbed depths and while I can guess what some of those depths are (a sudden reveal about Lila in the back half of the novel was obvious sequel bait – and while I didn’t mind it, it was a jarring thing to discover all of the sudden, especially when we already know what we know about that particular facial feature), it made them interesting and real. They both get a little superhuman at times (helped by some dangerous magic) but their emotional realities are strong enough that when plot takes over from character, you’re more than ready to allow it.
The plot is probably the tertiary thing in the book (after world and character) but that doesn’t mean it’s any slouch. Predictable, perhaps – but, again, no less interesting for it. The power structures and struggles between the Londons are immensely interesting to me and I hope Schwab takes us deeper into the machinations down the line. Red London’s strength is also its weakness – and White London’s bravado is also its undoing (while Grey London just… aww, poor unmagical our world…). All of this makes for infinite combinations and I look forward to seeing what happens now, as the plot of Darker Shade should pretty much force a long, hard look at how the worlds operate together. I’m excited, that’s all I’ll say.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Some of the predictability does knock it down a little bit – but Schwab expends so much imagination and energy in creating her world and her magic systems that you can forgive the first-in-a-series signposting. And this is a very good first-in-a-series. Hell, from the first line (“Kell wore a very peculiar coat”), I was hooked and burst through the book in nearly a day. It’s a gorgeous object and the words inside live up to the packaging. I wish I could go live in those other Londons or travel with Kell between them… but perhaps down the line, I’ll get to do just that with another (and another and another etc) novel in the sequence. I hope so – I can’t wait.