In A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, Kell is one of the blood magicians who are gifted with the ability to wander between parallel worlds.
What intrigued me: Recommended by literally everyone.
Textbook writing and too many info dumps
A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC certainly has a great base frame, but absolutely can't hide the fact that it doesn't quite know what to do with all that world building. Protagonist Kell is a smuggler, an adopted royal, a blood magician, and handles the correspondence between the four different Londons. To get that all inside your head, you'll already need a moment. The biggest problem is that there is so much about this world and so many specific rules, quirks, and things to know, that there is no way you'll have a good time reading this for the first time. Paired with incredibly factual and emotionless writing, it reads like a textbook. I was often torn between utter disinterest and sort-of fascination.
I grew insanely frustrated the more I read because I simply didn't understand what was happening and why it was happening, and who the bazillion side characters are. A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC plays in this sort-of 19th century-inspired historical-ish world that has kings and queens and (sometimes?) magic. Ish. I say Ish because even after having read this I still don't get it. Usually you'd expect a novel to lay out the basics within the first 100 pages, but in A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, you'll still be wrestling with exposition on page 350 of 400.
Clearly the idea is there and Schwab really tried to set up an original world, but half of it neither makes sense nor is comprehensible to the average first time reader. This is not the type of fantasy I enjoy - throwing words in made-up languages around and introducing so many different parallel worlds that you're constantly confusing everyone.
One dimensional characters and predictability
Because Schwab so heavily puts the focus on the world building, the characters are absolutely suffering. Everyone in A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC is one-dimensional, not even the protagonist Kell has an ounce of a personality. It's a shame because you can tell that a lot of effort went into this. At the end of the day, I think this book is impossible to enjoy if you prefer your high fantasy to make sense and to form a connection with the fictional characters you're reading about.
On top of all that - the plot is just very predictable and anti-climactic. Of course protagonist Kell must face the only other rare special snowflake blood magician in the book aside from him because of some barely-plausible plot convenience; and of course there is a mystery about his birth parents that we only get to solve if we buy the next two books.
Overall: Do I Recommend?
A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC wasn't for me. From a predictable plot to confusing world building, to writing that I just don't like, this one is a clear miss for me personally.
Genre: Adult / Sci-Fi / Parallel Worlds
"Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.
Officially, Kell is the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to take her with him for her proper adventure.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — a feat trickier than they hoped."(Source: Goodreads)