Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review of V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic

I’ve been thinking that many (most?) of the classic fantasy novels find some way to give us a point-of-view character who has to learn the nature of the magic in his (or rarely her) world. Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo are sheltered outlanders who learn the nature of power as they adventure into the historic lands. Ursula LeGuin’s Ged begins as an apprentice to a wizard before graduating to wizard’s school. Harry Potter begins in a wizard’s school. Roger Zelazny’s Corwin starts his adventures with amnesia and has to relearn the vast lore he’s forgotten. Even George R.R. Martin introduces us to his world through the borderland Stark family, characters who know some, but not all, of what goes on north of the wall or south in the fight for the Iron Throne.

That characteristic of so much successful fantasy work struck me as I read this one because our point-of-view character here, Kell, already knows everything about his world, or more properly, his worlds. He’s neither a student nor an outsider, but the classic insider. He rarely discovers anything new. Instead, he tells us – or our narrator tells us – much of what better fantasy allows us to discover.

As a result, the start of this is almost ponderous. The first 50 pages have almost no action, and there’s little at stake. Kell is tied to the royal family of his world, and we hear their history. Kell has dealings with the powerful of White London, and that serves as an excuse to get the history of that world. And he arrives in Grey London (our world) which serves as an excuse to deliver some of the history of the world we know.

The book picks up some when we meet Lila, and I suspect that’s in part because she is someone who knows nothing of magic. We discover a fair bit of the metaphysics of the universe through her eyes. That may be conventional, but things do start to come alive once she and Kell meet up. She’s originally our secondary character, but she emerges eventually as at least his equal. The story simply works better when it’s through her eyes; she’s the stranger in the world, and we can explore it more effectively when it’s through her eyes. If I were Schwab’s editor, I’d have pushed her to rebalance the opening narrative, letting Lila be our primary point-of-view.

There are other substantial problems, though. About a third of the way in, Schwab begins an irritating habit of giving us a scene through one point of view and then the same scene through another’s. It feels sloppy and unnecessary, just one more example of a not-fully-worked out narrative strategy. And then the tone changes dramatically. The initial warm and wondering sense gives way to some casual, unironic violence. Characters emerge only to suffer torture or death, and then we go back to concerns with nuances of language and fashion. It all feels inconsistent and uncontrolled.

All of that is frustrating because the premise is so fabulous. I love the possibilities of different Londons that rest one atop the other, each with a different relationship to magic. That’s an almost can’t-miss setting. The eventual story is almost adequate, I suppose – Kell has to deliver an ancient artifact to the mythical dead London – but it’s deeply clichéd as well. (Can you say “the ring must be destroyed before it corrupts its user”?)

I held on for the first two-thirds because I couldn’t believe such a great situation couldn’t eventually pay off. It never quite does, though. I read the final third almost perversely hoping it would stay disappointing, wondering how it was possible to squander such a terrific set-up on such a seen-it-all story. There are possibilities, I suppose, but nothing memorable ever develops.

There are sequels coming, and I’m curious to know how Schwab works with a concept she seems to have spent here, but I can’t imagine putting real time into this again. Once was enough.

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