- A Darker Shade of Magic
- A Gathering of Shadows
- A Conjuring of Light
The world might be different but there will always be London, or at least there are four of them, spanning from Georgian England to a lifeless world scoured by magic. A few special mages ferry messages between the worlds, but not all messages are created equal…
It’s important to preface this by saying I liked a Darker Shade of Magic. The setting of overlapped Londons with varying degrees of magic is intriguing, and the protagonists, a royal wizard chaffing at his servitude, and a Georgian thief dreaming of becoming pirate queen have strong chemistry and a back and forth that drives the story along. If I’d stopped there I would have said it made a breezy summer read.
Unfortunately however, I carried on with the series, and things went sideways. It’s not that the later books are bad, they are still well written and clip along at an enjoyable pace, no, the problem is that they reminded me of other books I would rather be reading.
For starters, our thief, Delilah, is in the first book a rogue who turns hero, or at least does heroic things to save her own skin. As the series progresses however she vacillates between selfish hero and full on anti-hero, in a way that feels inconsistent, rather than merely revealing a deep character. If I want to read about a lightly disfigured anti-hero who is obsessed with knives, I’d much rather read about Logan Ninefingers in the First Law books.
Similarly, Schwab has four Londons to play with: ranging from our own to a high magic wonderland, and yet at no point do I really get a sense of geography or place beyond fancy castle on the Thames. Having just plowed my way through the Rivers of London, where Aaronovich is not afraid to devote paragraphs to the gradation of brick work through the city, it is hard not to find to setting lacking.
Finally, in the first book the pace is such that the magic system is just taken as a fait accompli, and works all the better for it. As the series goes on we find out about the different elements, and balance, and the Antari, oh, and there are a whole lot of enchanted items that seem completely unrelated to any of the other powers and, and and… Rather than expanding on the way magic works in the first book, it just feels like the same amount of explanation is stretched over a variety of conflicting ideas and holes start to appear. It forces the whole series into an uncanny valley where things are explained just enough to seem inconsistent.1.
I had other problems with the later books,2, but they are all of a piece with the above. Ultimately however, the worst sin of the latter books it that they diminished the appreciation I had of the first book, so I struggle to even endorse that.
Weakly recommended only for those who can constrain themselves to reading the first book, though, if you want a story about a dangerous magical shadow fighting with wizards, you should read the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin. 3