First Line: Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
Sum It Up In One Sentence: Kell acquires a forbidden object from Black London, so with the help of wannabe pirate Lila, they must flee through several Londons and fight dangerous enemies who are seeking the power for themselves.
I had been seeing this book everywhere for the past year. That cover makes it instantly memorable. I’d read about it on Tor.com. They shared some amazing fan art. It was nominated for best fantasy in 2015 on Goodreads. And in February, V.E. Schwab announced it was picked up as a limited television series. So, despite not being crazy about Urban Fantasy, every article and review made me want it. I have been on a book buying drought the past few years, so I put it on my wishlist, but I never got around to actually purchasing it until I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for my birthday in May. This was the first book added to my cart. I just had to know what everyone was talking about.
Set in 19th Century London, we follow Kell, one of two remaining magicians who can travel between alternate Londons. Grey London, our London, that has no magic left. Red London, where Kell is from, where magic thrives. White London, which seems to feed off magic as it is slowly leeched from the world. And Black London, where magic was so powerful, it consumed the people before being cut off from the other worlds. Kell is an ambassador between these worlds, and it helps to feed his desire to collect items from both Grey and White London. All Black London tokens were destroyed, and with good reason. Someone with an ability like Kell could use it to transport to that world. Not to mention, a token like that would come with some very powerful magic indeed. Of course, Kell is tricked into smuggling a Black London token across worlds, and our real adventure begins. He meets Delilah “Lila” Bard, a thief in Grey London who is looking for a real adventure, and she gets more than she bargained for when she steals from Kell. Together, Kell and Lila work to keep the strong magic of Black London out of the hands of powerful enemies, including the Dane twins, the sadistic rulers of White London, all while protecting each other and those they care about.
There were enough twists and turns to keep you guessing without being too far out of left field. And while I feel the basis of this story has been seen before (protagonist finds evil object that must be destroyed while running from enemies), it was the characters and her magic system that made it unique. The subtle political intrigue was a nice undercurrent.
Both of our protagonists are well developed and fresh. Both have their complexities. Kell is a magician with a many-sided coat that can be flipped to blend into whichever London he is presently residing. Despite being considered a son of the King and Queen, he actually doesn’t know his family or his past from before he was five years old. He is an insider to the royal family, but constantly on the fringe. His feelings over that are layered, and it makes for a compelling character. His unwavering love for his adopted brother is what drives him in an hour of need, but it was nice to see glimpses of day to day frustrations of sibling-hood. My only complaint stems from that beautiful cloak. What was it’s purpose? It was so hyped and talked up, yet, I didn’t see it doing much other than help him blend in or stand out as needed. The only real magic to it was the multiple sides. That was a bit of a letdown.
Lila is fantastic. How refreshing to see a woman portrayed so differently. She wants to be a pirate. When offered the chance at fancy clothing, she chooses well tailored dark pants and cloak. She steals and has no qualms about it. She shows no remorse when killing, but she uses discretion on when to follow through. For a while she seemed like an emotionless cutthroat, but we get some glimpses of real emotion deeper in the story.
But for all the development of the main characters, the secondary ones are a bit lacking. Rhy, the foppish prince, was slightly cliched. The prince everyone loves because he is so just and fair. And how handsome! The Dane twins were such a comically bad pair: evil for the sake of being evil with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Even if they are the bad guys, I want some depth. Holland, the other magician who can travel worlds, was by far the most compelling, but I didn’t get enough. I wanted so much more of that character. More on his past and what he dealt with in White London.
Something flowed. The writing wasn’t heavy or filled with an overabundance of description, yet you got a sense of the world. In a genre full of bloated descriptions, the ease of her writing was refreshing. However, I did find myself wishing for a little more. While the Londons were essential geographically the same, resting on the River Thames, everything beyond it was different, including all names other than London. Why is the city name the same but the river different? There was a distinct lack of description for anything beyond London, which while I think was mostly intentional, was still disappointing. At one point in the story, Kell tells others that Lila is from far outside Red London, but it’s left at that. What is far beyond Red London? Are these the only people who have magic? The only place people can cross worlds? Why? As you can see, it left me with a lot of questions.
As a side note, the author has stated that any books published under “V.E.” is considered adult while “Victoria” is YA.
Despite my hunger for more information on the world and secondary characters, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe all my questions made me go deeper into it. Clearly I wanted to know more, so I must have felt something. The storytelling and main characters are compelling, and the magic system pulled it all together. I am looking forward to reading the second novel in the series A Gathering of Shadows, and while I would normally wait until next year when the paperback comes out (I have a thing for consistency), I might just have to purchase the hardcover sooner. I was slightly compelled to give the book a higher score, but the simplicity of the Dane twins pulled it back down.
8 out of 10
Author: V.E. Schwab (Tor Publishing)
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Format Read: Paperback
Category(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Urban Fantasy