I like my fantasy with a helping of LGBT, POC, feminism, and non toxic masculinity.
After reading series after series of what felt like recycled storylines and rehashings of the same basic premise, I found A Darker Shade of Magic to be set apart from other fantasy series I’d read. Set in a universe where there were multiple parallel worlds that could be accessed by a select few merely scratched the surface of V.E. Schwab’s refreshing world building capabilities.
You aren’t inundated by exposition, but instead are thrust into the realm of peculiar coats that have the ability to change their appearance, where magic doesn’t come without a cost, and female characters act with their own ambition and autonomy. The different parallel worlds are color coded based on their level of magic within. There is Red London (Ripe with Magic), Black London (Fallen completely from black magic), Grey London (Non-magic), and White London (In the midst of falling).
Kell Maresh is a blood magician, otherwise known as an Antari, who can travel to and from these worlds. Like many main characters before him, his power is rare. In fact, only he and the book’s antagonist have this particular power. Magic within the parallel worlds of this universe is varied just enough that by the end of the series Kell’s, while powerful, isn’t infallible.
Kell comes across Lila Bard, a thief with a mind of her own and ambitions to become a pirate, who finds a mysterious stone that bleeds magic from Black London, slowly infecting Grey London as it spreads. Together, although reluctantly at first, they try to return the stone to Black London before it completely takes over. This sets the tone of the series in and of itself. This is not, and never was, a lighthearted series that wouldn’t have a lasting effect on the reader.
As I read, my mind played the series out in grayscale as if directed by Guy Ritchie, the pop of red appearing as Kell used his magic. Thinking back on it, it amazes me that V.E. Schwab’s writing could bring such a visceral feeling as to the overall tone of a series without being overly descriptive. It felt like a natural progression as the world opened up page after page, saturating the reader and engulfing them in a sense of adventure with peril and consequences for every action taken. A year after the final book in the series was published, I still think about how many times I stared off at nothing as I processed cliffhangers and plot twists that I hadn’t seen coming.
At one point, in A Gathering Of Shadows (the second book in the series), I recall distinctly that I sat with my jaw dropped, screaming because of the sudden onslaught of feelings that I couldn’t contain. It was unfortunate timing for me personally, because I was working wardrobe for a show and had a quick change to do. Distracted didn’t even scratch the surface of how I felt, but in the best way possible that cannot properly be described. I wish every series gave me such intense feelings and reactions as A Darker Shade of Magic did from the start.
Let’s talk a bit about Lila Bard. Although she is one of the few female characters in the series, that doesn’t mean this book is anything but feminist. She wants to be in control of her own destiny, to not be held back by anything. Unapologetic and witty, Lila is perfectly encompassed within a single line of A Gathering of Shadows: “She bent most of the rules. She broke the rest.”
Her character progression throughout the series was the most noticeable as she grows into herself and her own potential. Right from the start she let’s it be known that she will not be told what to do or how to do it. Her autonomy means everything to her, and therefore it meant everything to me. I wanted to see Lila become everything she dreamed of and more. Seeing that come to fruition was not only satisfying, but it was also important to see in a fantasy series.
All of this pales in comparison to my feelings towards Kell’s brother, Prince Rhy Maresh. Though not blood brothers, their relationship is intriguing and all encompassing. Kell would do anything for Rhy, and he doesn’t shy away from that fact. Rhy is the catalyst of ADSOM as a whole, his bond with Kell being so deep-seated that this one relationship’s strength triggers a domino effect of plotlines throughout the series. I want to see more best friends in series who so obviously love each other platonically and would do anything for each other without it being sexual. There are different types of love, and platonic love between two male characters is rarely shown in the level that Rhy and Kell’s is.
The thing about Rhy is the fact that he is bisexual. This being a fantasy novel, having a bisexual character still astounds me in the best way possible. I’m always on the lookout for LGBT fantasy books, because while LGBT+ fantasy is growing, I feel like fantasy still has a long way to go on this front.
A lot of adult fantasy has a penchant for having an undercurrent of homophobia attached to it. Why, if building a world of your own, would you feel the need to keep the stigma of loving someone of the same sex? V. E. Schwab does no such thing in A Darker Shade of Magic. In fact, she doesn’t even make a big deal about it. In the first book Rhy’s sexuality is said as casually as one would describe what they were wearing or if they prefer red wine over white.
Although she didn’t make a big deal of the fact that Rhy is bi, I am going to do so. It was subtly done, beautifully so, because while it was clearly stated that he bedded both men and women, it wasn’t a plot point. He wasn’t stigmatized for it, it was simply the truth. To have this interwoven into the story this way, it makes his progression natural. It doesn’t feel stilted or forced.
He has history and baggage, which effects his decisions and reactions realistically. If more books were about characters who just so happened to be LGBT, instead of the plot being solely about the fact that they were, I would read every single one of them. Does his sexuality affect his plot? Yes, but it doesn’t define his plot progression. He and Kell’s platonic relationship and bond is not only the the core of Rhy’s plotlines in the series, but as I said before but I’m reiterating, it is the core of the series as a whole.
This doesn’t even mention the fact that Rhy is a POC. The entire Maresh royal line is POC and much like how V.E. Schwab casually mentioned Rhy’s sexuality, she does the same with this important piece of character development. Having a diverse cast in terms of race and sexuality puts books higher up on my must read pile. Because V.E. Schwab integrates these aspects seamlessly into her worlds without further explanation, there hasn’t been much buzz regarding this, whereas I want to shout it from the rooftop. POC and LGBT? Be still my heart.
I’m thrilled that V.E. Schwab has decided to continue writing in this universe because while the ending to A Conjuring of Light was so rewarding and a sigh of relief, I am beside myself with the fact that we haven’t seen the last of Kell, Lila, and Rhy. I’m also looking forward to Steel Prince, a comic about the backstory of Kell’s adoptive father, prince Maxim Maresh, before he became king of Red London.
Per the author’s recommendation, we’ve changed the descriptions of the books from YA to fantasy.