I’ve never had an interest in adult Western fiction, and I still don’t, mainly because a lot of it looks the same. I don’t know why people bother taking out books that all have the same back of a car, front porch of a house, or topless man enveloping a busty woman on the cover. But if one set of grown-up books stands out, it would have to be V.E. Schwab’s fantasy trilogy: Shades of Magic. I’ve actually known about its existence for a while, but it took me until the production of the movie for me to actually read through it. Go figure.
In Shades of Magic, a young magician named Kell is an errand boy who delivers mail to different versions of London in parallel universes. One day, he ends up with a very powerful and illegal magic stone. His fate then becomes intertwined with the tomboyish thief, Lila Bard, who goes on adventures with him to stop whatever inevitable mass conspiracy theory is threatening to tear the multiple Londons apart.
The big appeal in Shades of Magic is the worldbuilding. The four Londons are color-coded, based on various properties: Magicless Grey London, Relatively Okay Red London, Dystopian White London, and the source of all the trouble, Black London. The drawback with these worlds is that none of them is particularly interesting by themselves. Grey is just our world, Red is the Harry Potter world, and White is the Game of Thrones world. Black is by far the coolest, but it’s explored the least. In fact, the potential of the multiple Londons schtick is undermined by the fact that more than half of the story is set in Red London. I hate assuming the author’s intentions, but the worldbuilding feels like they just combined two inherently appealing things—parallel universes and the United Kingdom—just because those things are inherently appealing.
Fortunately, the writing is very elegant and makes the books addicting to read. If you’re intimidated by their length, they’re broken up into pretty short chapters, with many shorter subchapters in each. The action scenes are, for the most part, pretty darn good too.
But even with great prose, the characters leave something to be desired. They don’t really have much personality beyond their established archetypes. Kell is just… a dude, and Lila is just… a dudette. Sure, Kell has some kind of battle of temptation with the MacGuffin in book one, but it’s not particularly interesting. Lila has that YA protagonist trope of being a special snowflake for no reason, AND IT’S ANNOYING. Many reviews on Goodreads have riffed on her enough, so I’d only be repeating them if I elaborated on Lila in detail. Just know that she’s a pretentious, obnoxious brat. Of all the characters, Kell’s rival, Holland, is by far the most fleshed out, but he’s not quite enough to offset everyone else. If it wasn’t for the great writing of the actual story, these people would’ve made reading Shades of Magic very tedious.
Also be wary that Shades of Magic follows the tradition of “the second book being awful” very faithfully. A Gathering of Shadows was an absolute slog to get through. The whole thing revolved around some tournament that wasn’t even plot relevant in the first place, and was chock full of rushed and unexciting fights. Only the last sixty pages or so are important, as they lead into the events of the final book.
While the final book, A Conjuring of Light, is definitely an improvement, it isn’t that much better. Despite the urgency of the situation established at the beginning of the novel, a lot of it is spent wasting time with inconsequential characters that I didn’t even remember. One thing that blows my mind is how some authors are able to write entire chapters that serve no purpose to the main story. Fortunately, Shades of Magic is nowhere near as bad as Keeper of the Lost Cities, whose seventh book spends FOUR HUNDRED PAGES IN THE INFIRMARY, but it’s noticeable.
Final Verdict: 7/10
I really wanted to like this series. But as the old saying goes: Quality over quantity. What’s the point of having four Londons, when they each have such empty design and worldbuilding? I’d rather read Lockwood and Co., which is set in one, fleshed-out London. Shades of Magic is an example of the sheer idea behind it being what sells, rather than the execution of that idea. It’s not the worst fantasy out there, but it’s VERY overrated and outclassed. You know what, the movie might end up being a better alternative, since it’ll probably only adapt the first book; the only one that matters.