Review: Shades of Magic Trilogy

TLDR: An enthralling and innovative series about parallel Londons and everyone’s favourite elemental-style magic. The story beings with Kell, the last magician who has the ability to travel between worlds, all of which have grown differently according to the amount of magic they have. The story touches frequently on themes of duty and power, but the relationships between characters is the true highlight.

Series: Shades of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Books: A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light

Synopsis: Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers – magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons.

There’s Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There’s Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London…

Publisher: Titan


(Reading time: 3.5 mins)

Victoria Schwab is an established name in both adult and YA fantasy. She writes compelling characters and intriguing worlds, which is a great way to describe this trilogy. Each book is easy to tear through, especially as the premise is relatively simple. It’s about Kell, a magician, endowed with a unique kind of magic: travelling between worlds. He goes from Red London, which has the right amount of magic, to one which has none and one which is yearning for more, Goldilocks-style.

At first glance, Kell seems like your typical protagonist. He’s a little bit grumpy, a lot good, and the most powerful magician in any of the Londons. (I don’t find this type of characterisation to be necessarily bad, just frequently used). However, we quickly learn it’s not that straightforward. For one, he’s got a bad habit of committing treason. Kell brings and takes objects between the Londons (illegal), and also takes a person (extra illegal).

He has a part to play in the evil that unfolds in A Darker Shade of Magic, which sets up a theme throughout this series, where the main characters commonly make mistakes they have to fix. It’s refreshing to see characters that are purportedly all-powerful actually do things wrong, and is partly the reason they all feel so realistic.

The other protagonist of the book is Lila, a thief from the world without magic. Like Kell, she’s not without flaws – she frequently exasperates the people around her for getting purposefully into unnecessary trouble, for example. She’s an action hero, essentially. She isn’t infallible, but she’s determined to be, and it gives her what I think is the most interesting arc throughout the trilogy.

The two of them are accompanied by a roster of lively characters, none of whom are unlikeable (aside from the ones you are meant to hate, of course). A prince, a pirate captain, the magician from White London, and of course various kings and queens.

My favourite book of the trilogy was actually the second, A Gathering of Shadows. Although it deals with the repercussions of the first story while building up to the next, the plot is still delightful: a magical games tournament that is captured beautifully, opening up the larger world beyond Red London. I appreciated this, as it always irks me when books put so much thought into the magic system but never consider what the rest of the world looks like.

One of the main reasons it’s a better read is the lack of an outright villain. In the first and the final, the bad guys are pretty obvious. They lack the complexity all the ‘heroes’ have, which simplifies the story (though not, I have to say, at the cost of making the stakes too low).

On the other hand, book three finally delves into Holland a little more: the only other magician in A Darker Shade of Magic who has the same powers as Kell. It also gives the rest of the cast narrative points of view, which makes for a more varied book and lets you draw interesting comparisons between each character as you see fit. However, this also contributes to a problem of pacing that A Conjuring of Light has. It opens moments after book two, but the time span of the plot is long, leaving the middle to suffer, with just slightly too much dreading the Big Bad.

Another point: although the ending of the trilogy is satisfying, I’d have liked it to focus more on the ‘what now’ that comes at the end of a book, as it could feel a little short to some (i.e. me. I just really enjoy the quiet moments in books man, idk what to tell you).

Is it worth the read? Yes

Sequels? A further trilogy, The Threads of Magic, is planned, with the first book to release in 2021. It will have new leads, with the original cast included, and is set, I believe, about ten years after A Colour of Magic, which invites cool possibilities for more world building.

One qualm – although I have no doubt I’ll enjoy the new books, I actually think I would’ve preferred a prequel. (I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this myself, usually prequels are awful). But I’m pretty curious about things like the mystery of Kell’s parentage, how Lila becomes a wanted thief and etc. which are not explored in this trilogy.

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