“The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”
V. E. Schwab
I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic.
It felt utterly fresh to me, a kind of story I’ve never read before, and I enjoyed that after the woeful reading year that was 2015. The novel posits the existence of four parallel Londons, sitting next to each other like the pages of a book, in the classic parallel-worlds metaphor: Grey London, our London (in its Victorian/Vaguely Steampunk manifestation), utterly without magic; Red London, soaked in magic, a near-utopia where most people seem to live comfortably and where wonders abound; White London, almost drained of magic, whose inhabitants scrabble for dregs of power, killing where they can; and Black London. Nobody talks about Black London; all we know is that the magic there somehow went bad, that it began to eat its people up, and as a result of this catastrophe the walls of the worlds were sealed to contain the infection of Black London. Now, only the Antari, a dying breed of magic-user, can travel between the Londons, carrying messages between their rulers. Our Hero, Kell, is one of the last of the Antari, clandestinely and illegally smuggling trinkets for collectors between the worlds, and on what seems like a routine mission to White London he runs across a terrible relic from Black London. Most of the novel follows his efforts to get this relic back to Black London, with the help of Lila, a Grey London cross-dressing thief who is also awesome.
It’s difficult to think about Schwab’s closed-off worlds, her quarantined and unspeakable Black London, its baleful influence seeping out into the dystopian White London, without reading some element of environmental catastrophe into the novel (especially when you’ve spent your lunch break reading a Strange Horizons article about petrofiction). Magic in A Darker Shade is a power source denied to all but a few (the inhabitants of Red London) who live in a kind of energy surplus, untouched by the plight of the worlds around them: White London is a nightmare of cruelty and greed, struggling to survive in an energy crisis, Black London has imploded through dependency on magic, and Grey Londoners like Lila are subjected to poverty and inequality. (“Be glad for what you have and who you have because you may want for things but you need nothing,” the impoverished Lila rages at Kell when he complains about the malaise he feels in Red London’s palace.) Red London feels like a utopia, an oasis; but uneasy gaps tug at the edge of it, things which its inhabitants refuse to talk about. Kell feels that he is valued only as a generator of the power the city needs to maintain its superiority, and the text is always queasily aware of the unspoken fact that Red London effectively abandoned White London to its fate in order to keep its own magic users safe.
The symbolism of the world-building works, I think, on several levels simultaneously. First, we can read the sequence of Londons as a kind of chronological sequence of energy usage: Grey London the pre-industrial, blithely ignorant world; Red London the utopian, energy-rich state enjoying the height of its development; White London, in the throes of an energy crisis; Black London, post-apocalyptic, dead, destroyed through excess of energy use. At the same time, there’s a synchronic political dimension to the world-building: Red London’s self-imposed isolation is a register of the West’s deliberate blindness to the inevitability of oil scarcity, to the fates of White London and Black London, even when those fates are laid out in front of it. There is, of course, a nugget of Anglocentricism buried here, which is why London is the common denominator between Schwab’s four worlds, as opposed to, say, Cairo or Tokyo or even Paris: the privileged West refuses to look beyond its own needs to those of the disadvantaged who will be disproportionately affected by climate change.
As I said: a book that feels fresh, a violent book that casts environmental and energy crisis into an entirely new light, which is what good fantasy does. Narratively, it’s also a cracking story with a stirringly awesome heroine, and you should read it.