Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chicago Nerds: A Darker Shade of Magic

V.E. Schwab's recently-released novel "A Darker Shade of Magic" (2015) had been getting some pretty good hype, and this past Monday the Chicago Nerds book club met to discuss!

In "A Darker Shade", there are four versions of the world, all of which were once connected by magical gates and doorways--and all through their versions of London. Magic works differently in each, and eventually the worlds are split apart from each other when Black London is overrun with destructive, infectious magic. White London is a dog-eat-dog, power-hungry, seemingly dying world. Red London is in a world rich both materially and magically, while Grey London seems to be our own mundane and relatively magic-less world (somewhere approximately in the mid-1800s). One of our protagonists, Kell, is a Red Londoner with an extremely rare gift for magic, particularly the magic of passing between worlds. Along with Lila--an ambitious thief from Grey London--Kell is caught up in a White London plot for worlds-dominion (that's a fun phrase) which has the side-effect of setting free a sinister force from Black London.

By the way, really dig this cover. Refreshing to see some bold, original design for a fantasy work--designed by Will Staehle (Tor interview about the design here).

We had a VERY high percentage of the group that really liked the book, myself included. Despite this, it's popcorniness and cliches drew our fire pretty good. We really liked it! But many quibbles, and possibly spoilers, below:

A few folks were not fans of the first half of the book or so, feeling it took too long for the plot proper to shape up. Personally I liked that world-sketching bit the best, before the bag-o'cliches was upended over the plot (personally, of course, I'm fairly content with several hundred pages of botany and geography). But! Once it gets going, it really clips along--most people at group reported reading the novel pretty quickly, especially the last half.

We particularly liked the magic system--it's straightforward enough to understand but not sheer wish-fulfillment, based on the four elements. It drew some comparison's to Brandon Sanderson's magic systems (by the way his essay on magic is worth reading). There's also a fifth element, Milla Jovovich bone, which we'd like to hear more about. Also it seems like Schwab kinda thinks blood magic is its own thing too, so...six elements? And also the black magic seems to be its own, potentially seventh

I had QUIBBLES GALORE with the magic once they started using the Super-Magical Magicky Majyk Stone (patent pending), which basically just granted wishes, albeit at the cost of sucking your life/will/whatever. My particular favorite is when Kell & Lila render themselves incorporeal (pass through doors, people, etc.) YET DO NOT PLUMMET TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, THERE TO BE BURNED/CRUSHED UPON RECORPOREALIZING. Convenient, that.

But I liked this book! We pretty much all liked this book.

I had a criticism that I must retract! I thought the "Flintlock Revolver" was BS, but it turns out they existed! It didn't work great, it wasn't around for long, but it was totally a real thing. Thus concludes our gun history for the day.

Our biggest gripes with the book was mostly the extremely cliched, obvious nature of most of it. Tropes that need to die:
  • Lazy villainizing. The Danes are a prime example of this--torturing for fun, constantly smiling darkly evilly wickedly etc.-ly.
  • Boss fight: especially one where the boss has a bad case of Villainitis and can only speak in cliched variants of "is that all you got", "this is going to be fun", "I'm going to wear your [body part] as a necklace" and so forth.
  • Boss fight subcategory: wizard fight. If you've seen Saruman v. Gandalf, if you've seen Voldemort v. Dumbledore, then you've already seen EVERY MAGIC FIGHT IN THIS BOOK.
    Besides, the best wizard fight ever is in "The Sword in the Stone"(1963).
  • And speaking of Tolkien imitation (tolkimimesis?), the black stone's similarity to the One Ring got fairly tiresome in a hurry.
  • Big quibble: the story goes out of the way to tell us that Kell can perform magic without speaking, yet late in the climax a pivotal bit of tension relies on him not being able to speak in order to...perform magic. Weak.
  • Far less funny: the use of sexual violence in a scene to establish something about a female character--in this case, the seemingly throw-away rape attempt that Lila responds to by promptly killing her assailant. I'm really not fan of this writing strategy, on a couple of levels. Putting this in the middle of the list, because otherwise I'll need to write about it at length, and I'm not up to that right now.
  • Quibble: this is in a sense alt-history. Grey London appears to be our London, in our world; we can even place it time-wise to within a few decades--the aforementioned flintlock revolver as well as King George (presumably the 3rd). HOWEVER, in this version of the world...there were many doors and gateways to other, more magical realms, in the relatively recent past (a few centuries), and they weren't particularly secret or rare--why is this not explained or explored?
  • Trope that needs to die: "The Professional, Honorable Thief", of which Lila is a prime example. Stealing--petty thievery--isn't glamorous, honorable, a reliable source of income, or without consequences. It's also not like a job you can pick at the job fair. MAKE IT STOP.
  • Quibble: Kell's utterly black eye being "unreadable". This is really pedantic and nitpicky of me, but: we don't actually read emotion off the other person's eyeballs--it's the surrounding skin, microexpressions of the brow, lids, etc. Tiny nitpick but it drove me to distraction. For Kell to have one normal, readable eye, and the other BLANK and MYSTERIOUSLY EXOTIC, he would probably need to be suffering from a stroke.
  • The White Londoners' need to acquire magic through eating blood (?) threatened to devolve into a magi-zombie survival story, right down to Lila pulling off a headshot first thing, which actually could be pretty interesting I guess.
  • Great premise, four Londons is a cool idea; we would have liked to have actually seen more of Red & White London.
  • Also, a villain named Holland, fairly close historically to the Dutch-English wars...are we supposed to make something of this? No? Okay.
But we liked this book! We all pretty much liked this book.

Interestingly, one of the new folks at the meeting brought up Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" (1949), which sort of excuses some cliches by identifying them with basic archetypes. That idea partially motivated and has been used to examine George Lucas's "Star Wars", which is itself a mega-mashup of pre-existing tropes. This got us thinking about some similarities between "Star Wars", the monomyth, and "A Darker Shade of Magic"--things often seen in these epic stories. The powerful artifact, the wise old mentor, the villain who is a kind of shadow or reflection of the hero. Lila kissing Kell "for luck" right before a dangerous crossing struck a particular chord.
Or utility belt "cord", anyway. Get it?!
We talked about how many characters there are who are introduced only to be killed off pretty quickly--Lila, Kell, and Rhys are the only major speaking characters still breathing at the end.

But on the other hand, there's this big list of things that seemed to be setting up for exploration--Kell's mysterious past (which we never return to after the first mention?); the fact that the book shouts at us "LILA IS AN ANTARI, DUMMIES" for most of the conclusion, without addressing it; the merchant Calla who we seemed meant to double back to, but don't; how obvious it is that Holland's NOT REALLY DEAD. Schwab has indicated this is the first book in a series, which makes sense given all this.

In fact, in many ways this felt like the pilot to a new television series--it's sort of one contained story, like a feature film, but not as polished, and with lots of kind of trailing threads and loose edges that could develop into other storylines. We talked for a bit about how and why some books feel "movie-ish", how the prose, editing, and chapterization choices feels very influenced by film & television. (I've griped about this before.) It's not something we disliked about this book, just something we noticed.

A fun read, and recommended if you're into fantasy.

May's selection is "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" by Claire North, check that out on Facebook or the CNSC website.

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