Imagine if four different realities converged in one city, intertwining magic and mystery with truth. This scenario is precisely the premise of V.E. Schwab’s 2015 novel, A Darker Shade of Magic. Set in a universe sporting four parallel Londons, each with its own level of magic, the novel follows Kell, a young man and one of the few remaining Antari—magicians with the rare ability to travel between these alternate realities.

The story begins in “Grey London,” where readers first meet the shadowed protagonist, Kell, as he delivers a letter to the King of England. He is a messenger from his home city of Red London and a smuggler, trading his magic for small trinkets from the alternate realities he visits. His life takes a dangerous turn when he accidentally smuggles a forbidden artifact from Black London that possesses destructive magical powers. As Kell navigates the treacherous political landscape of the Londons, he crosses paths with Lila Bard, a cunning thief with dreams of an adventure beyond her dreary life in Grey London.

Within the first few chapters, Schwab delivers beautiful descriptions of each London and how they differ from each other. The protagonist assigns a color to each city, differentiating it from its counterparts. Red London is a rich, vibrant city, full of life and magic, whereas Grey has barely any trace of power, most resembling the London we know as our own. White London is a desolate place, beginning to be overrun by dark magic, and Black London lost itself to evil long ago, causing the public doors between the realities to seal for good. When the story begins, only the Antari can enter through them.

The characters and their relationships with each other and their respective worlds are what make the novel so special. Schwab creates complex, morally ambiguous personalities for her characters and intertwines them with the magic of the story’s universe. Though they are powerful and alluring, both Kell and Lila are flawed and multifaceted, grappling with their own desires, fears, and inner demons. Their first encounter, one of thievery and dishonesty, is a seamless reflection of their differences and the unlikely bond they form almost immediately and strengthen throughout their travel across realities.

A Darker Shade of Magic is a beautifully plotted novel filled with twists, turns, and unexpected revelations. Schwab deftly weaves together elements of magic, politics, and mystery, creating a story that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action-packed sequences interspersed with quieter moments of character development and world-building. With its richly imagined setting, engaging characters, and gripping storyline, it's a book that will linger in readers' minds long after the final page. I highly recommend A Darker Shade of Magic for anyone looking for a thrilling adventure into alternate realities!