When I first picked up A Darker Shade of Magic, I had no idea what sort of journey I was in for. From the very first line, I was hooked. “Kell wore a very peculiar petticoat.” Already, the voicing of the narration is whimsical and strange. But V.E. Schwab becomes more impressive from this point onward.
Schwab has a knack for worldbuilding. Or, in this case, world(s)building. Usually, a fantasy book will involve an original or slightly different magical world in which the characters and story will exist. However, Schwab goes the extra mile; she creates several worlds, all of which have their own relation to magic and their different tones.
The idea of A Darker Shade of Magic, that there are several versions of London, all of them with varying degrees of magic, is, at least to me, entirely unique. Kell is the last of the Antari, magicians who can move through parallel worlds — or, more specifically, parallel Londons.
Grey London, the closest parallel to our own world, describes a world mostly devoid of magic. Red London, Kell’s home, is full of magic and life, while White London is a chilling look at a world addicted to a dwindling supply. Black London, now cut off from the rest, is a dangerous place that’s nearly impossible to get to, so engulfed by their greed for magic that it destroyed them. The aesthetic works very well with the type of story Schwab is telling: one of corruption, family, and sacrifice.
For the purpose of today’s analysis, we’ll be studying only the first three Londons, which is more than enough material to see the detailed world(s)building that Schwab crafts in this book.
The first world the reader is introduced to in the beginning of A Darker Shade of Magic is Grey London on one of Kell’s errands. As a clever trick, Schwab uses the world most like our own to ease the reader into the fantastical tale. Grey London is simple and a little grimy, but it has a sort of modest charm.
Grey London lay ahead…His feet carried him through St. James Park, down an ambling dirt path that ran beside the river. The sun was setting, and the air was crisp if not clean, a fall breeze fluttering the edges of his black coat. He came upon a wooden footbridge that spanned the stream, and his boots sounded softly as he crossed it.Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, pg. 24
Grey London’s “ambling dirt path” is a charming image, if a little grubby. The aimlessness of the path hints that this version of London doesn’t see much of magic and doesn’t quite know its own path because of this forgetfulness. Grey London is also not the cleanest: the path is a “dirt path,” after all.
But the very next sentence turns on the charm using delightful alliteration. “The sun was setting” makes good use of the soft S sound and leads right into the hard C, “the air was crisp if not clean,” and then to the F sound, “a fall breeze fluttering.” If nothing else, this sentence is fun to say, and it adds an extra layer of charisma to an otherwise bleak and dirty setting. The description then goes back to the soft S sounds in the footbridge that “spanned the stream,” before ending with a string of S sounds, all in a row: “boots sounded softly as he crossed it.” The pleasant sound of the S gives Grey London a homey feel, in the same sentence that crafts the image of the wooden footbridge, a modest addition that Kell notes as he crosses it.
While Grey London is certainly not lively or magical, it does possess a certain positivity sometimes. For its part, the magic-less London serves as a midpoint for Red and White London. And both are very different.
Serving as a pseudo-base for Kell’s smuggling and later, life or death adventures, Red London is full of magic. This information isn’t given to us only via exposition, but rather like the magic that courses through Red London, it is present in every description.
As Kell stepped from the bank of one London onto the bank of another, the black slick of the Thames was replaced by the warm, steady glow of the Isle. It glittered like a jewel, lit from within, a ribbon of constant light unraveling through Red London. A source. A vein of power. An artery.Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, pg. 44
Red London, true to its name, is the lifeblood of its citizens, and Kell feels it at every step. Even the grubby feeling of Grey London gives way to the warmth of Red London, and this innate feeling is present even in the word choice, the language that Schwab uses. The “black slick” of the Thames calls to mind a sort of dark ooze, and the mental image is reinforced by the “ick” sound at the end of “black” and “slick.”
This glum world is replaced by the “warm, steady glow” of Red London, and without the “ick” sounds from the previous world, stepping into this new one feels refreshing.
Schwab goes on to say that the Isle “glitters like a jewel, lit from within,” the glow, glitter, and light brightening the description. The end of the sentence uses elegant, soft R’s to finish the introduction: “…a ribbon of constant light unraveling through Red London.” Here, the “light” is reinforced, and paired with the unraveling ribbon, a beautiful sight.
Now that the beauty of Red London is established, as well as its difference from the plain, grubby Grey London, Schwab brings to the forefront what was already implied: Red London is vital to the survival of its citizens. “A source,” notes that Red London serves as a safe base, if not a home, to Kell, as it is the source of many aspects of his life, including magic, family, and the illusion of safety. “A vein of power,” highlights the fact that Red London is probably the most prominent and healthy of the Londons, bringing to mind its importance, again, through the use of metaphor, calling Red London a “vein” in the body of the universe. “An artery,” takes the metaphor one step further by emphasizing that Red London isn’t merely a vein, but an artery, the vein that takes blood directly to the heart.
In stark contrast to the life of Red London, White London has a cold quality to it: a city frozen in struggle. When Black London was destroyed by magic, White London decided not to let magic overcome them. Instead, they set to work capturing the magic and enslaving it. This conflict led magic, a sentient thing in Schwab’s story, to fight back by sealing itself away, cutting off the life that magic provides.
This struggle had a side effect, and that effect was the reason Kell had named White London white: every inch of the city, day or night, summer or winter, bore the same pall, as though a fine coat of snow — or ash — had settled over everything. And everyone. The magic here was bitter and mean, and it bled the world’s life and warmth and color, leaching it out of everything and leaving only the pale and bloated corpse behind.Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, pg. 87
While the language Schwab chose to describe Red London alluded to life — using images of blood and arteries — White London’s descriptions call to mind death at every turn. The first notable word choice is the repetition, “White London white,” calling to mind a certain inevitability: it is what it is. The listing and expansion of White London’s desolation — “every inch of the city, day or night, summer or winter” — reinforces the feeling that White London is going down a path that will inevitably lead them to destruction.
The “fine coat or snow…or ash” hints at what White London could have been; new-fallen snow can be beautiful and hopeful, even though it’s cold. But ash has a very different connotation. It’s what’s left after everything else has burned.
Schwab contrasts the two Londons even more directly. While Red London is warm and light, White London’s magic has “bleached the world’s life and warmth and color.” Again, the listicle repetition throws off the rhythm of the sentence, unsettling the reader with a stumbling, forward motion. The finality of the paragraph is supplied by the image of a pale “bloated corpse.” Every moment spent in White London is dangerous and leads inevitably to some sort of death.
Through each description of Grey, Red, and White London, Schwab masterfully creates three versions of the same setting, each of them unique and with personalities that seem to jump right off the page. The use of alliteration, rhythm, and careful word choice solidifies the settings of A Darker Shade of Magic to the point where moving with Kell between them all is a clear distinction. An idea that could easily have been confusing instead becomes not just clear, but alive.
Grey, Red, and White London are all introduced with care, a testament to how important description really is, especially in the fantasy genre. Schwab’s world(s)building also shows just how fun jumping between settings can be.
If you want to see more of these worlds that V.E. Schwab brought to life, be sure to check out A Darker Shade of Magic, as well as her other books!