I first read the “Shades of Magic” series by V.E. Schwab on the first day of 2019, and I loved it so much I reread all three books six months later.
The first book, “A Darker Shade of Magic,” opens with a description of protagonist Kell Maresh’s peculiar, magical coat: “It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.”
As Kell steps out of his home realm, Red London, and into the dreary landscape of the magicless Grey London, he changes his stylish red coat into a simple black jacket, one of many magical transformations. In a series set in several parallel Londons named by color, Kell is one of the only remaining Antari, a magician with the power to travel between them.
Each London is defined by its relationship with magic: Red London lives in harmony with it, Grey London let it die, White London tries to control it amid a series of bloody regime changes, and Black London let magic run loose to the point of the city’s destruction. To prevent the spread of Black London’s corruption, the doors between worlds were sealed long ago, and now only Antari can walk between them.
Kell thus serves as an ambassador for the monarchy in Red London, carrying messages to the other monarchs. On the side, Kell smuggles forbidden items between worlds to cope with feeling trapped by the watchful royal family who adopted him but keep him like a possession. When a deal goes horribly wrong and Kell comes into possession of a powerful Black London relic in Red London, he takes refuge in Grey London, where he meets Lila Bard.
Another main character of the series, Lila is a cross-dressing thief and aspiring pirate. Fierce, reckless and guided by a self-serving sense of morality, she is best defined by her iconic line, “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.” Lila is riotously fun and wildly infuriating, particularly when she steals the dangerous artifact from Kell without even knowing what it is, forcing him to include her in his quest to return it to Black London.
What follows is a deadly venture across worlds as assassins chase after Kell and Lila for the stolen mystery artifact. This mission complicates “Shades of Magic” with the lingering dangers of Black London, the moral complexity of the villains and the unexpected bond between the main characters.
The interplay between Kell and Lila colors the series with their banter, grudging friendship and Kell’s poorly concealed exasperation. Where Kell is temperate, extremely powerful and somehow charming despite his temperament resembling that of a grumpy kitten — all qualities that make him my favorite character — Lila is his opposite in every way, bringing out fun new sides to Kell with every interaction.
The other character able to accomplish that is Rhy Maresh, crown prince and Kell’s adopted brother, who tragically does not become a truly main character until the second book. Rhy is a fun-loving, openly bisexual cinnamon roll, who angsts over whether he can be a good king without any talent for magic and just wants Kell to be safe. The relationship between the brothers is entirely sweet and delightful to read as they tease and struggle to protect one another.
In addition to these deeply weird and colorful 20-year-old characters, the “Shades of Magic” series boasts incredibly intricate world-building, an essential element of good fantasy. From Kell’s magic coat to the multidimensional Londons to the incorporation of the Antari language, Schwab’s imagination is boundless and a joy to read. Each detail, rendered in her beautifully evocative writing, constructs a fascinating setting of magic and intrigue.
In a series with so much traveling, I certainly felt transported to each new location and world. My skin prickled with alarm whenever Kell ventured into White London, a city dusted in ash and fear, to speak with the sadistic monarchs who rule it. I felt warm reading about the bright red river and lively Night Market in Red London and uninspired by the drab landscape of Grey London, which closely approximates the London of our own world in the 1800s.
“Shades of Magic” presents an intoxicating journey from start to finish, complete with wonderful and terrifying magic, roguish pirates, kings good and bad and dying, magical tournaments, epic fight scenes, angst, love and anything else you could want from fantasy fiction.
Schwab has written perhaps my ideal fantasy series, one so spectacular I would not be surprised if I read it again before the year ends. “A Darker Shade of Magic” is the first stop on a beautifully written, high-stakes adventure to new worlds, one you won’t be able to put down until you know if everyone is safe and what all of Kell’s coats look like.
Catriona Kendall is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service. She formerly served as managing editor at The Hoya. Managing Reads will appear in print and online every other week.