*This review is spoiler-free*
I feel like it can always be a little bit intimidating when you begin an immensely popular series. There will forever be in the back of your mind the question of whether or not it will live up to the high expectations you have of it from hearing other people talk about why they love it so much. Going in to the Shades of Magic series by V. E. Schwab, I was hyper-aware that this series is loved by so many people (as is its author). Luckily for me, it didn’t disappoint.
Kell is one of the last travellers – magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, without magic and ruled by the mad King George III. Red London – where magic is revered, and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London – where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London…
Undoubtedly, one of the best aspects of this series was how unique the magic system and worldbuilding was. It was the main reason I picked A Darker Shade of Magic up in the first place and it was the reason why I loved it so much by the end. Intertwining parallel universes with non-hereditary magic made for a world that really stood out to me as different from other fantasy novels that I’ve read where magic has such a prominent place. I am also always drawn in by elemental magic especially, so incorporating this throughout and showing characters wielding different aspects of it to different ends was so intriguing.
In terms of the worldbuilding, the concept of parallel Londons just worked. I loved that each one had distinctly different characteristics: the opulence of Red London especially contrasted amazingly with the ashen feel that White London always had. In short, you knew exactly which London you were in without even looking at the chapter headings. In creating them so differently, and having our protagonists stem from different ones, I felt like there was some cohesion between them all, and each had a clear bearing on the others. Admittedly I’d have loved some more information on Black London, but I suppose there isn’t much more that could have been included without digressing completely from the main plot.
It would be wrong to write a review of this series without also talking about these main characters. Kell was the kind of character that you just couldn’t help but root for. Every time he put himself in danger for Rhy, or Lila, or anyone for that matter, you just wanted to protect him. Lila herself was such a refreshing change. She had a lot of the sarcasm that is becoming quite characteristic of YA protagonists lately, but this was complemented nicely by the emotional war she constantly fought between protecting herself and letting others in. I also thought including a character such as Rhy who had to rely on pure heart over magic really showed the human aspect underneath all the extraordinary things going on. I’d be here forever if I talked about Alucard and Holland as well, but overall the characters were definitely what drove a lot of the success of the book for me.
The reason I am still so conflicted about how I feel about this series, though, is that there are a few parts of it that I just can’t ignore. The first problem for me was that overall, I thought the pacing was just so odd. The first novel was pretty much perfect (hence why it was the only one of the series that I gave the full five stars to), but because it rounds off so neatly it left a lot to do in the second.
A Gathering of Shadows (my least favourite) read as the first novel in the series again. It was as though we’d almost started from square one and were building up a new plot that didn’t directly carry on from the first book. The tournament in the second book also occasionally felt as though it wasn’t *exactly* that relevant, and I found myself getting slightly bored in the middle while I was waiting to understand the significance of it; a reveal that never really came. To me, it read more as a way of filling some pages and making sure that everyone was in the same place for the last book to move forward. The third book was better, although we were still left with a lot to do and explain that resulted in the need for so many pages.
Another issue (and possibly the main one for me) was the unanswered questions we are left with by the conclusion of the series. Without spoiling anything, there’s a question of unknown heritage, and a question of an unfulfilled bargain on a ship that I am still none the wiser about. I would have loved to have been given just a bit more information about certain characters’ backstories, and to have known why a bargain was struck halfway through one novel which was never spoken about and never became relevant again. So many things felt so unfinished, and while I understand the point of some things being left open to interpretation, there were other points that in my mind really needed confirmation. Leading on from this, I do feel as well that some things just happened to work out almost too well in parts, which left me feeling as though there could have been a greater element of challenge to attaining or learning things throughout.
Looking back, I realise that I do seem to have written a lot about the negative elements of this series. That’s only because I felt they were substantial enough to lower my rating of it and talk about, but not enough to alter my perception completely of Shades of Magic being an overall brilliant series. Even though naturally as reviewers we want to go into a lot of detail about the intricacies of a book, for me it will always be the overall reading experience that is the most important factor in how I felt about it. I had a fantastic time reading this series, and often I was completely unable to put it down. The vivid characters and imaginative story kept me engrossed all the way through, and in the end, that’s really what you want from a book.
Series Rating: 4/5 stars
I’d love to hear other thoughts on this much-loved series! If you’ve read it, did you feel like there was a satisfying end? Who was your favourite of the protagonists? Let me know!
Have a lovely day,