Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade final for IreneTitle: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.

Officially, Kell is the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to take her with him for her proper adventure.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — a feat trickier than they hoped.


I don’t know how A Darker Shade of Magic got on my radar or really what I was expecting, but it honestly was amazing and had me, like, whipping through chapters[i]. Schwab – better known for her young adult fiction written under her given name Victoria – weaves early nineteenth-century England with (hard? high?) fantasy into an engaging and engrossing fast-paced piece of world-building. *Ahem* Kell, our fearless ginger-haired protagonist is an Antari – a powerful Traveler magician capable of mastering all five elements[ii] – who officially travels between Londons[iii] as a diplomat of the Maresh empire of Arnes but also unofficially smuggles artifacts among the three cities until he’s tricked into delivering a letter into Red London (which has an inconspicuous piece of Black London tucked inside (oh hi, plot)). It is here, in a pub in Grey London, with a powerful piece of magic in his shape-shifting coat, that Kell meets our other fearless protagonist: a cross-dressing lady thief named Delilah Bard who is totally kickass and, shall we say, persuades Kell to bring her along with him. Hijinks ensure. (#whew)

A Darker Shade of Magic needs its world-building to succeed: not only because “fantasy [as a genre] tends to live or die on its world-building,” (thank you, Gizmodo) but also because, without it, Schwab’s readers are left scratching their heads in confusion. Why is Kell two-of-a-kind? And why is it so dangerous to have a piece of Black London? And, wait, what’s Black London again? And who is Rhy? And are we supposed to be rooting for Holland or not? And, I’m sorry, but WHAT IS GOING ON??? Schwab writes Lila as both a narrative counterweight to Kell AND a crutch for the reader – she is really freaking successful at building up the foundation that, yes, Magic™ exists but, no, not in the world that also produced the House of Hanover, okay – but it doesn’t feel like we’re being explained to past the first couple of chapters. Magic just is and the Londons just are, and Schwab’s writing is better for it.

The first part in a planned trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic is part whodunit, part swashbuckling caper, and part coming-of-age. It is not, however, a romance – but that’s okay because Schwab writes such fascinating and faceted characters that the googly eyes most opposite-sex-partnerships make in traditional romances feels over-the-top and, frankly, unwarranted within the world she’s created. (But spoilerly thoughts if you want ‘em.[iv])  The action, although well-paced, felt slightly rushed into its resolution; so, either I was expecting a totally different ending or, well, nope – I was expecting a totally different ending. S’okay, though, as soon as I finished the book’s last page, I was still itching to get my grubby hands on its sequel, A Gathering of Shadows. I think that means Schwab’s foray into adult literature was a success.

[i] I would set my alarm for thirty minutes and then, like, blink and the alarm would go off… and I would think, “Has it only been a half hour? Wtf is going on???” And then I would set another thirty-minute alarm until it had been, about, three hours. #truestory

[ii] Bone, earth, fire, water, and wind; Kell also has one completely black eye and this amazing coat that he can turn inside out and outside in to reveal different coats when needed.

[iii] There are four Londons: Black London and White London and Red London (Kell’s London) and then Grey London (our London and the boring one without magic); Magic™ kind of, like, swallowed Black London, though, and nobody goes there anymore or even really mentions it.

[iv] I kept anticipating a kiss between Kell and Lila simply because they were written as vaguely attracted to one another, but every time a Romantic Moment™ would arrive and Kell and Lila didn’t kiss, I cheered. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy romance in stories, but it didn’t really feel like either Kell or Lila were ready to be in a romantic relationship, and it makes me so, so happy that Schwab didn’t push it just because we live in a heteronormative world and a nineteen-year-old girl and a twenty-one-year-old boy are “supposed” to end up together. Four for you, V.E. Schwab.

Top Ten: Books I’ve Recently Added to My TBR

logo-TopTenTuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme was books I’ve recently added to my TBR pile.

Below are the ten most recent books I added to my to-be-read shelf on Goodreads!

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All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World Building by David J. Peterson

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

The Little Shop of Happy Ever After by Jenny Colgan

Mad Men Unzipped: Fans on Sex, Love, and the Sixties on TV by Karen E. Dill-Shackleford

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold

Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown

Top Ten: Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2016

logo-TopTenTuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme was the most anticipated releases for the first half (January through June) of 2016.

I’m getting a little bit better at knowing about new releases – thank you, library job – but I still don’t know about a lot (hence my shortened list!). As to me actually reading any of these next year… well, that’s an entirely different story!

ttt-Anticipated01-062016a

January

28th: You and Me, Always by Jill Mansell

February

9th: Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau / Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte

16th: The Rule of Mirrors by Caragh M. O’Brien

23rd: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

ttt Anticipated 01-06 2016b

March

1st: Dear Emma by Katie Heaney

April

5th: The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan / Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

12th: Giant Days, Vol. 2 by John Allison, Whitney Cogar, and Lissa Treiman

19th: Hystopia by David Means

Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

23899174Title: In the Unlikely Event
Author: Judy Blume
Rating: ★½
Summary: When Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Judy Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, Blume imagines and weaves together a haunting story of three generations of families, friends, and strangers, whose lives are profoundly changed by these disasters.


Did you know that Judy Blume is, like, the OG of young adult authors? I knew that, even though somehow I never read one of her (20+!) books growing up. Maybe that’s why I had such high hopes about In the Unlikely Event, and maybe why I felt so disappointed after finishing it – she’s Judy Freakin’ Blume. There is a GIF of her kayaking down a river of words on her website! She intervened when that husband gave away his wife’s 24-year-old copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret!! Anything she writes should be awesome-sauce!!!

So when I heard that she was publishing an adult novel, I got excited to jump on the Judy Blume Train and have my first Judy Blume Transformative Reading Experience™… and then I started reading In the Unlikely Event and it became a slog through flat characters and superfluous details.* ☹ There were just too many characters and plot threads – spiraling off into who cares and what the heck is going on and why is this character never mentioned again – packed into a 400-page book with one omniscient voice that couldn’t inflect or modulate its tone. I’m definitely sure that In the Unlikely Event was an updated example of the Adolescent Coming of Age trope found pretty much everywhere (in every time), but I’m only kind of sure it was supposed to be about Miri, Blume’s teen stand-in to the real events she both experienced and then fictionalized for the book. Because there’s, like, twenty-five characters who get POV chapters but only about five who get the lion’s share but then most of them relate to Miri some way except when they don’t…. (Do you see my problem here???)

Miri’s a good narrator: she’s reliable and self-assured, but still in that questioning place where “what does it mean to exist in a world that doesn’t always make sense?” seems less twenty-something apathy and more a genuine grapple with existentialism. From her perspective, having a succession of plane crashes be the driving force of the novel is understandable. Being fifteen is hard enough without external motivators; add in trauma and grief and love and hormones and suddenly aviation mishap (which every single summary mentions, btw) transforms into a pretty interesting inciting incident. But without that? Without Miri’s particular view of what’s happening? In the Unlikely Event becomes a slow crawl through Blume’s failed attempt at writing multiple perspectives – her lack of plot induces boredom, her plethora of characters merit confused head-scratching, and her fictional doppelgänger’s existential angst gets lost in the shuffle of Blume mentioning everything in lieu of missing anything.

* These are verbatim:

“Wish me luck,” Kathy said. “I’m going to call home now.”

“Good luck.”

Kathy went out to the pay phone in the hall to dial her parents.

Because I need to know that “call home” means picking up a phone receiver and dialing a number??

They changed into their nightgowns, leaving their underwear since they weren’t going to sleep for hours.

Because knowing a character’s underwear situation is imperative to the plot???

Five Favorite: Fantasy Novels

“Five Favorite” is a feature on thewasofshall where I lay out my five favorite “x”. Sometimes they’re relevant to a season or holiday, mostly they’re not. It’s an all-around fun excuse to give my 100% amazingly awesome opinion. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

To me, fantasy novels incorporate something otherworldly or inhuman, but then don’t explain why such elements exist – they just are. And that’s kind of why I love them: fantastical works are exciting! The author dreams up this crazy premise and I buy it, 100%, no questions asked. Here are five of my favorite!

TheBookOfLostThings

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Coraline

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

ADiscoveryOfWitches

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

AGameOfThrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Lumberjanesv1

Lumberjanes, vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson

Have your own five favorite fantasy novels? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

TheMartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars’ surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity and his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength – he embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. As he overcomes one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next, Mark begins to let himself believe he might make it off the planet alive – but Mars has plenty of surprises in store for him yet.


If it weren’t for the big-budget movie starring Matt Damon that just came out*, I don’t think Andy Weir’s The Martian would be flying off the shelves as much as it has – but that’s kind of a shame, really, because it’s super (ridiculously) good. And not just good in a hard sci-fi kind of way where you’re already kind of enthralled by NASA and interested in Mars and always maybe wanted to be an astronaut when you grew up. It’s good in the way a spy thriller is good or an adventure story is good – good where there’s a clear good guy vs. bad guy thing going on and there’s a nail-biting chase scene (or three) and you’re not JUST rooting for the bad guy to fail, you’re actually rooting for the good guy to win.

For me, books like The Martian don’t come around very often: books that make me bark out peals of laughter, put off watching TV (admittedly, my favorite thing to do), and keep me up way past my bedtime so that I can finish just one more paragraph (okay, fifteen). A book that fills my mind so that the seconds tick by into minutes, fifteen minutes roll into thirty, and one hour somehow becomes four… hours where I’m sitting and then lounging and then stretching, all to feed the insatiable need of omg what is happening i need to know how this ends. (If I could somehow read at the edge of my seat then that’s what I was doing for, like, ninety percent of this book.) I knew that I would enjoy The Martian, but I didn’t anticipate just how much this book was going to win me over. (Kind of how Netflix thinks I’ll rate a Gritty Crime Drama with an Engaging Female Lead four stars and I’m like, “Why would I watch that, Netflix?” and then I watch it and give it four stars. (Because Netflix just knows, okay??? So let’s pretend that I’m Netflix and I just know.))

You don’t need to know a whole lot about this book before going in – namely because Weir’s fearless protagonist Mark Watney spells it out in literally the first chapter of the book – but I suppose it’s helpful to know that Watney is an astronaut presumed dead and, as a result, left stranded on Mars. So, basically, the entire book is various forms of “Way to go, Mark!” and “Have fun, Mark!” and “So glad you’re not dead, Mark!” except Mark is saying this all to himself because he’s the only human being on an entire freaking planet and he doesn’t even have a robot for company.

Basically, The Martian is sarcastic and smart and nail-biting and laugh-out-loud funny and I wish you would just read it already because this review is turning out useless. (You’ll like it, though, I swear.)

* Everybody’s Favorite Scientist™ Neil deGrasse Tyson actually shot a (real) promo for the (real) film’s (fake) Ares 3 mission, (theoretically) taped for his (real) program Star Talk. META.

Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

BrokenMonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies, but this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused. The cops nickname him “Bambi,” but as stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?
If you’re Detective Versado’s over-achieving teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you are the disgraced journalist, Jonno, you do whatever it takes to investigate what may become the most heinous crime story in memory. If you’re Thomas Keen, you’ll do what you can to keep clean, keep your head down, and try to help the broken and possibly visionary artist obsessed with setting loose The Dream, tearing reality, assembling the city anew.


It’s odd for me to read two works of narrative fiction back-to-back – if I don’t alternate novels with nonfiction, it can become too easy to just read made-up stories and forget all the rest. But reading Station Eleven only to follow up with Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters seemed like a no-brainer: although both novels peppered microcosmic bursts throughout a macro narrative, their similarities kind of stopped there. Where Station Eleven cornered speculative fiction with a flu virus turned pandemic, Broken Monsters turned its spotlight on a probable schizophrenic serial killer roaming around the city of Detroit in real time.

And, yes, both hooked me with narratives, and kept me reading past bedtime, and fed me answers just as quickly as they kept me asking questions. Each new chapter was just so freaking good that it left a weird feeling in the literary part of my gut – I really wanted to believe that all chapters would be so gracefully composed… but what if they weren’t? What if the high of reading a perfectly proposed, interconnected narrative was just this one chapter? What if the narrative peaked too soon and left me feeling both disappointed in the story and also annoyed with myself for setting my hopes too high? (What if? What if?!)

If you read my review of Station Eleven, then you know that Mandel’s novel did not disappoint – it was so very not disappointing that I found myself brimming over with positivity – and just plain gross affection – about how wonderfully magnificent a single, 300-page volume about a space station and Shakespeare can be. (It just makes me feel things, okay? Like, why is literature art? And how can artistic forms of expression explain the human condition? And maybe what is the meaning of the universe? And also what does it mean to be human?)

Which brings me to Broken Monsters and how this novel had so much shit going for it and also how its ending left a gritty paste in my mouth. For example:

  • our protagonist is both female AND fierce AND a single mum AND Latina AND in charge of her own sexuality
  • each section is narrated by a rotating cast of characters who meet up and interact at various points in the novel (my kryptonite!!!)
  • the novel opens on a murder victim and unfolds into the mind of a twisted serial killer who is probably schizophrenic or maybe suffers from paranoid delusions but is also definitely one of those narrators WAY before you realize that he’s also our killer
  • underneath it all, a very lovely homage to the city of Detroit, MI

And so you’re reading about this awful murder – written in grisly detail – and you get to follow the development of the narrative along with three vastly different characters and everything is amazing and you’re, like, yeah, Lauren Beukes! Get it, girl! Make me question my own moral values as I revel in the disgusting gore that is at the heart of your novel. Strip away my conscience. Slather me in filth. BECAUSE I AM DIGGING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW.

And then the last couple of chapters happen and you’re like wait. Hold up. WTF is going on. Is this real life. How is this happening. I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

And, okay, I get that maybe this was just me: because both Rebecca Schinsky and Amanda Diehl liken the novel to season one of HBO’s True Detective, and I LOVED season one of True Detective. But the rest of the novel was strictly realistic fiction. (Hella creepy but still within the vein of reality.) And then the ending comes? And it feels like a fever dream? And not humanly possible? It just didn’t flow with the rest of the story in a way that felt satisfying or coherent. Beukes didn’t allow us to marinate in that head space for enough time so that I could buy that what was happening was truly happening. (Like in, say, American Psycho.)

And so it kind of sort of ruined the preceding 300 pages of amazingly constructed characters, plot, and narrative drive. If Beukes wanted to write a trippy “wtf is going on is what’s happening really happening” kind of novel, she should have done it throughout – ESPECIALLY because she already puts us in the mind of the novel’s killer. And never once did I question the reality of the story when I was reading his parts; I only questioned HIS reality – and that is an entirely different thing.