In a time where I feel completely isolated, I’m returning to my favourite books – and, against the odds, I’m finding a way to share them. Every night over FaceTime, I read a story to my partner, watching with delight as he becomes completely engrossed in the intricate and elaborate world I’ve known for so long.
Everyone has a book that they can read over and over again, getting utterly lost in the world every time. For many this is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, or perhaps Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but for me, it will always be V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series.
Set across four parallel universes, each involving a different version of the city of London, we follow Kell Maresh – the red-haired magician, known as an Antari – and Lila Bard, a stubborn thief determined to find an adventure. The Antari are the only magicians who can travel between the parallel worlds, described by Kell as Red London, the world overflowing with magic which makes the Thames glisten red; White London, a dying city where the magic is seeping away and the worst parts of humanity are coming to light; Grey London, a world not dissimilar to our own, and reigned by the ailing George III; and Black London, the lost and decayed city overrun with magic. The Antari are a dying breed, with only Kell in Red London and Holland Vosijk in White London. Lila lives in Grey London and makes her living as a thief and, occasionally, a murderer. Naturally, when she meets Kell on his monthly visit to Grey London, all hell breaks loose.
Of course, I have no intention of letting any spoilers slip, but I will say that this is one of the most extraordinary series I’ve ever read. I find myself laughing at Lila’s angry exclamations and the feud between Kell and the handsome pirateer Alucard Emery, before, in the next moment, feeling extremely moved by the interactions between Kell and his brother Rhy. Instances of betrayal and treachery also keep me on my toes as Schwab weaves an intricate and compelling story.
I inadvertently read the series in the wrong order at first, and yet this is something I have never regretted. Despite being introduced to the characters in a completely different sequence, their relationships and experiences still made perfect sense, and this is testament to Schwab’s brilliant story-telling abilities. Lila and Kell, who are frequently separated throughout the series, have a fascinating, and often very entertaining way of circulating around each other – explained well through the omniscient narrative style, and the way Schwab flits between different characters. To me, the relationships in Schwab’s stories are much more realistic and relatable than those in any other series. This is an author who does not gloss over difficult topics such as pain and betrayal, and neither does she focus on romantic love: one of the most notable themes throughout the entire series is Kell’s powerful brotherly connection to Rhy Maresh, his non-biological brother, and heir to the throne of Red London. The siblings do not always get on, and there is a lot of resentment, frustration and pain in their relationship; but there are also poignant moments that reveal the tender depths of familial love.
Schwab has been described as the next Neil Gaiman, or the predecessor to Diana Wynne Jones, but I believe she’s her own writer; all of her books are rich in description and action, built up to astonishing vividity. As I read – or reread – it seems as if I can feel the warm air of Red London and smell the roses which coat the rich magic which resides there. Such escapism is a fundamental part of storytelling and it is also what I think we all need, especially during a crisis.
So when I read to my partner late every night, I delight in the fact that by experiencing this fantastic series with him, it almost feels brand new to me too. And slowly, chapter by chapter, we’re creating our own city – a London that we can run to, even in times like these.