V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic is one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in ages.
In the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, readers are introduced to Kell, one of the last of the Antari. While everyone in Kell’s London is capable of magic, the Antari are like the gods of magic, capable of traveling between worlds, specifically three different Londons: Red, Grey, and White, all set in 1819, all geographically similar, but all wildly different. Long ago, the doors between the worlds had been open, but when a fourth London, Black, was overrun by magic in a very concrete demonstration of absolute power corrupts absolutely, the doors were closed to save the other three worlds – or at least to save Red London. Kell travels between these worlds, serving as an ambassador for the kingship of Red London and sidelining as a purveyor of otherworldly items – which is strictly forbidden. When he unwittingly smuggles an item from Black London into Red London, he sparks a chain of events with far-reaching consequences.
Kell is joined on his adventure by Lila Bard, a thief with dreams of being a pirate, who finds herself embroiled in a world she never imagined as magic does not exist in her London, Grey London. The antagonist in this installment, Holland, is the only other Antari Kell knows of, the Antari of White London, a brutal land run by Athos and Astrid (two of the most wretched characters ever).
I think, at its core, this entire series is about the possibilities, responsibilities, and dangers of power, and the first book does a great job setting this up. The second book, A Gathering of Shadows, furthers this theme as Red London gears up for what is in essence a magical Olympics, the Element Games, also known as a great event to bring all our main characters together. But the darkness awoken in Black London will not rest until he has consumed the other worlds, and Kell et. al. have a lot of work in front of them to save Red London. In the final book, A Conjuring of Light, the darkness finally reaches Red London, bringing the fight right to Kell’s front door. I wish I could tell you more, but honestly there is just no way to talk about these books without spoiling something. There is so much to love in this series – the strength of all characters regardless of gender, sexuality, or status, the extremely complex and real relationships, the number and depth of the subplots alone is extraordinary.
The writing is superb, the world building is intricate and imaginative, and the characters are simultaneously relatable and wholly unique. I cannot recommend this series enough.