There was a time when there were four London’s: Red London, White London, Grey London and Black London. They could be moved through freely by people and magic, but then Black London fell and the doors between world’s and cities were closed. Only the Antari may move between these parallel universes now, and Kell is one of the last.
Brought up in the palace of Red London, under the wing of the royal family, Kell has never known where exactly he stands. Is he a prince or is he property? As an Antari it is his duty to serve the royal family, passing messages between the three remaining worlds, but during his visits he smuggles forbidden trinkets, selling them on to collectors and enthusiasts. It’s a rebellious act that hasn’t gone unnoticed, and when a dangerous object falls into his hands, one that should have been destroyed with Black London years before, Kell has to fight against the darkening force of magic that threatens to corrupt the three remaining worlds. He finds an unexpected ally in the shape of a thief desperate for adventure, Lila Bard.
Although Kell defines the worlds by single colours they are vibrant. Red London is tinged by the rose glow of its river, the source of magic in the city, but it’s also a bustling hub of markets and festivity. White London is bleached of joy and warmth. The ruthless twins Athos and Astrid rule based on fear and compulsion. They bind their soldiers to their cause using magic including Holland, another Antari, who is forced to obey their every command. Grey London is devoid of magic and most of its inhabitants have forgotten about its existence. Schwab’s world-building gives not one, but four worlds compelling histories and atmospheres.
Kell is a relatable character. Although he holds a position of privilege he is restricted in what he can do. There are always eyes watching him. Its unsurprisingly that he smuggles trinkets, something that is strictly forbidden, not just to reassure himself of his freedom but to make something for himself. It something he shares in common with Lila. She might not be restricted in the way Kell is, but poverty has its own limitations and is searching for something to call her own. Their opposing views of the world make for entertaining conversations and good-natured rivalry.
Holland by comparison has lost his freedom entirely. He is bound to serve two cruel rulers for the rest of his life. Although his actions are ruthless in turn, he is a villain you can in part empathise with. He has distanced himself from his actions in order to survive but despite that it is clearly eating away at his soul.
Power is often coveted in A Darker Shade of Magic by those who don’t have it, it’s what makes the pull of the black stone so hard to resist. It’s what makes people hungry for more magic, money, control, but it doesn’t come without a price. Accumulating power means sacrificing parts of yourself, walking away from who you were and setting yourself on a darker path, and sometimes the shadows consume you.