Tag Archives: London

On V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” (A Darker Shade of Magic #1)

10 Apr

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

It’s the fantasy genre’s bread and butter: our world is a dull, flat, adventure-less universe that only exists to be the lame foil of a whole host of other, brighter, infinitely more magical universes. An adolescent human doesn’t fit into the dull, flat universe, and their life is awful, until one day an owl shows up with some mail. Or one day a wizard knocks on your Hobbit hole door with his wizard staff. Or one day a Jedi knight turns out to be your next door neighbor and you learn there are way cooler things to do than shoot womp rats with your T-16. Escapism may be the simplest of benefits from fantasy novels, but it’s one at which V.E. Schwab excels in her lovely new novel A Darker Shade of Magic, in which a young man and a young woman–both full of beautiful, adolescent angst and dreamy feelings–must find their proper worlds.

Kel belongs to Red London. The city is full of magic powered by the glowing, ruby-hued Thames, and Kel is the last of the blood magicians. His enhanced ability allows him to do something no other has been capable of for hundreds of years: travel between the three Londons. Red London is healthy and flush with magic. Grey London is magicless and dull–the world of the Muggles and the untalented. White London stands on the brink of disaster as the magic in this world sucks the life out of its inhabitants, who in turn grow increasingly and violently power-hungry. And there is one more London. A forbidden London. Mordor. … I mean, Black London. (How many times can I write, “London,” in this post, you ask? So many times. So. Many. Times.) When Kel finds an artifact from Black London, he becomes the unwitting pawn in someone else’s deadly game. But even more perilous than the puppeteer pulling at Kel’s strings is the Black London artifact itself.

Grey London is devoid of magic. It's dull and weak and boring. It's our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

Grey London is devoid of magic. It’s dull and weak and boring. It’s our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

In the boring London, leading a boring life but longing for something so much more, is Delilah Bard–thief and ne’erdowell extraordinaire with an appetite for adventure (as long as “adventure” is synonymous with “piracy”). Delilah, or “Lila,” is the epitome of the spunky genre heroine. Orphaned and living on her wit and deft hands, Lila steals to survive … until she steals the wrong loot and finds herself entangled in the adventure of her life.

“Trouble is the looker …. It keeps looking till it finds you. Might as well find it first.”

-Delilah “Lila” Bard

She is intelligent, headstrong, independent, and mildly damaged. In a word, Lila is familiar. I wouldn’t call her a tired trope, since this world needs all the strong female characters it can get, but Lila hasn’t achieved the depth of character that compels me to love a book. She pales in comparison to other fantasy novels’ protagonists like Seraphina Dombegh or Lyra Belacqua. I can only hope her character–and Kel’s, as well–grows in depth in the future novels of this series.

But speaking of tropes, Schwab’s characters aren’t the only aspects of ADSoM that fall a little flat. Tell me if this plot sounds vaguely familiar to you fantasy readers: an unsuspecting mortal finds herself in the possession of a dark, evil artifact from a cursed land far away; the artifact is hunted by the people who were left to fight back the darkness on their own and suffered great loss because of it; to destroy the evil artifact, said unsuspecting mortal must return it to the dark lands from whence it came, but carrying it has taken its toll! As long as Peter Jackson directs the film adaptation, I guess I wouldn’t mind so much.


Many of ADSoM‘s characters live behind masks, so it’s no surprise that Kell and Lila are headed to a masquerade. And, after all, what’s a fantasy novel without a ball?

The magic system itself, while not robustly defined, provided some wonderful action sequences. Schwab does not disappoint when it comes to building excitement or creating a detailed combat scene. Thanks to her descriptiveness, the intensity of Kel’s blood magic and the horrors of Black London’s power combine to add the freshness ADSoM needs. And, since this is apparently the beginning of a new, promising series of Schwab’s, I’m excited to see the lore and landscape of the Londons develop. Hopefully, Black London will take a more prominent role as a setting to see more of that sweet, sweet darker shade.

“‘I’m not going to die,’ she said. ‘Not till I’ve seen it.’

‘Seen what?’

Her smile widened. ‘Everything.'”

Read It: A Darker Shade of Magic is the perfect fit for the casual fantasy fan. It doesn’t delve for hundreds of pages into a complex world history or throw countless unpronounceable names in your face or require a glossary as thick as a stand-alone novel. The story of Kell and Lila is an age-old tale of adventure and daring, with just enough magic to escape from our own dreary, grey world.

Don’t Read It: Some of us can’t help ourselves. We’re hypercritical, self-righteous little snots who like to go to town on the inadequacies, however small, of entertaining fiction. ADSoM can really rack up the points against it between the shallow characters, mildly derivative plot, and sketchy magic system. So you may not want to pick this up if you’re the type who tends to over-analyze or needs to throw a book across a room because a fantasy author keeps finding new, thinly veiled ways to reference Middle Earth.

Similar Books: They may move vastly slower than ADSoM, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is another story about an unsuspecting mortal with no powers but tons of heart who is tasked with returning a dark and magical object to a scary realm beyond the mildly nicer realms of humankind before it.


On Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”

12 May
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere takes readers to the mythical land of London Below–a secret world that exists in the shadows and the cracks and in the corner of our eyes.

I read Neil Gaiman for the first time last year. American Gods left me more than a little disappointed after having bought into the Gaiman hype, and, if not for a certain book club I’m in, I may never have read another of his novels again. Gaiman’s re-imagining of London–its myths, landmarks, and seedy underbelly–in his novel Neverwhere is a far cry from American Gods, both in its cleverness and entertainment value. In Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew, a Scottish financial analyst new to London, is minding his own business, has a decent job, is engaged to a lovely if a bit manipulative girlfriend, when he becomes entangled with a mysterious and deadly plot from a world he never knew existed. London Below is the place of people who fell through the cracks. It is a mirror of the London Richard lived in, where Knightsbridge is bridge of total darkness and absolute terror, and Earl’s Court is the court of an actual earl, and at night, Harrod’s turns into an open market full of strange foods, people who speak to rats, and sewer people peddling garbage.Richard’s world is flipped inside-out and upside-down as he follows his new friends through a maze of new dangers and adventure. He must come to terms with his own fears and cowardice if he wants to make it back to London Above in one piece.

Anne Meier's cover art for Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere aptly depicts the mirrored London Richard finds himself lost in.

Anne Meier’s cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere aptly depicts the mirrored London Richard finds himself lost in.

Richard is pulled from his comfortable home and comfortable life when he finds what looks to be an injured homeless girl on the streets. He patches Door up and sends her on her way only to find he has become inextricably entwined with the girl’s journey to avenge her dead family. Door has the magical ability to open any door, even where there wasn’t one before, and her ability is attracting the attention of some dangerous people. Richard and Door, together with their companions the marquis de Carabas and Door’s bodyguard Hunter, set off through the trials and politics of London’s alternate world. But they’re being relentlessly pursued by some of fantasy’s most entertaining villains: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, two sadistic, rat-eating, sociopath assassins, whose strength and evilness surpasses anything human. Gaiman’s combination of goofiness and morbidity fit perfectly in the dank sewers of London Below. His moments of lighthearted wit imbued with cruelty and violence create a unique aura that is all Gaiman’s.

The sewers of London are the perfect setting for Gaiman's sense of humor and sense of horror.

The sewers of London are the perfect setting for Gaiman’s sense of humor and sense of horror.

As with American Gods, though, I found myself enjoying side characters and subplots more than Neverwhere‘s main storyline. Granted, Neverwhere was vastly more interesting and its characters considerably more captivating, believable, three-dimensional, etc., etc., but I love Gaiman’s minor plots. I’m sure he has volumes of notes on characters like Hunter and Islington and the marquis, and all I want from him is more of that. Is that so much to ask? The brilliant thing about Gaiman and his skill that I’m more able to appreciate now that I’ve read two of his books, is his ability to create a full world populated with characters a reader like me wants to know, no matter how briefly the character appears in the book. So, Neil, can we please, please have a spin-off novel about Hunter now?

Read this if … you enjoy fast-paced fantasy that aren’t necessarily light. Read Neverwhere if you’re looking for that book that sits somewhere between the wittiness of Douglas Adams and the deep, gory depression of George R.R. Martin.

Don’t read this if … you aren’t willing to suspend your disbelief. Gaiman specializes in rewrites of history and mythology, and if your wont is to nitpick inconsistencies (like mine was when I read American Gods), then you’re going to have a bad time. Also, don’t read it if you don’t like rats.

This book is like … American Gods, obviously, especially since Gaiman himself compared the two novels. Neverwhere also reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’s A Sudden Wild Magic, which likewise tackles the endlessly entertaining concept of alternate worlds behind the prim veil of contemporary British culture. Also, if you’re one of those Harry Potter fanatics, this will be the novel to help you grow up a little bit while still hanging onto a fun but unexplained magic system.

The inimitable Neil Gaiman is practically a demigod of sci-fi/fantasy, and he makes milk look like a BAMF.

The inimitable Neil Gaiman is practically a demigod of sci-fi/fantasy, and he makes milk look like a BAMF.

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

19 Dec
Richard Galbraith's (aka, J.K. Rowling's) The Cuckoo's Calling got another couple of rounds of publishing once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Richard Galbraith’s (aka, J.K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling got a lot more heat once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Let’s start this off with a confession. I was once a Rowling hater. That’s right. I hated J.K. Rowling. Part of my hate was born from a knee-jerk reaction to the rest of the world’s absolute adoration of her and her popular Harry Potter children’s book series. Part of it was created by Rowling’s clear misunderstanding of the use of punctuation in the English language. Altogether, I’m a crotchety reader who has a difficult coming to terms with her biases. With that in mind, I read the Potter series in 2011 and felt … OK about it. If I had grown up on them like the rest of my peers, I’m sure I would think differently, but I was reading Dickens when they were reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When I learned Rowling wrote a grown-up book, I was intrigued, more so because of how she had done it: incognito. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a straight-up detective novel. There’s no kitsch–nothing fancy here–just a good old fashioned  murder and good old fashioned detective work. Reading Rowling under the guise of Robert Galbraith is like running into your fifth grade teacher outside of school and realizing she curses–like, a lot–and has a love life. I had to come to the same terms when I realized Roald Dahl wrote a morbid kind of erotica. Plenty of authors write mainstream fiction then dabble in the young adult genre, but I can see the opposite being much more challenging, especially for author whose fame is of such scale. Rowling has her work cut out for her. Any time she writes a book from here until eternity, she will be competing with herself, Harry bloody Potter, and the entire world’s nostalgic deification of her wildly popular children’s book series. I can definitely understand her choice to write under a pen name. I can also understand how her probably peaceful dalliance in anonymity was so brief.

You can't hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

You can’t hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

Now that we have the annoying “Oh, my God, it’s J.K. Rowling!” part out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old school detection novel. A woman dies and a crotchety, loner sleuth hoofs it around town beating down doors and wrestling down confessions. Our dead woman is Lula Landry, a tortured but beyond-gorgeous model of mixed race, who supposedly threw herself from her fourth story penthouse to her death on the snowy streets below. Her tormented adopted brother, a lawyer of a prestigious London firm, believes her “suicide” to be murder and sets the crotchety, loner sleuth Cormoran Strike on the hunt. Strike is a war veteran-turned-private eye.

No one can read "private investigator" without thinking of THE private investigator. Between Hammet and Bogart, the profession will always be partiall under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

No one can read “private investigator” without thinking of THE private investigator. Thanks to Hammett and Bogart, the profession will always be partially under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

Strikes unintentional sidekick is Robin Ellacott, transplanted to London to be nearer her fiancee and is taking temp jobs until she finds a “real” one. Her first assignment is to assist the indebted, recently dumped, and mildly homeless Cormoran Strike. The two slowly form a working partnership and eventually a working friendship. At first I was pleased with the idea of a buddy cop story line with members of the opposite sex, but there is some tension between Robin and Cormoran that make me think Rowling will take the partnership-cum-friendship to a “partnership” of a different kind in future iterations of the Cormoran Strike series.

Characters are the key in The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s Cormoran’s muddled but full life that drew me in and his personality–easily switching from bad cop to a soul with the deepest empathy–carried me through the novel. Equally, Robin’s endearing naivete of city life and the world of crime juxtaposed with her fervor for the life of a private eye made her an exciting character to read. I’m not certain that Rowling is a mystery writer … yet. The plot was primarily lengthy interviews with suspects and witnesses, broken up by scenes of egregious drinking, and the conclusion came a surprise only because I felt the clues didn’t add up. But I will say the author knows how to write people. She knows how to craft a lasting, singular character, and for that reason alone I will most likely read the next Cormoran Strike novel. I’m guessing we can expect at least another six books, right?