Thursday, February 2, 2017

Sulzer- A Darker Shade of Magic

I hadn't been able to make it to the Sulzer SFF club in a while, but last week I was able to re-read and join them for a discussion of V.E. Schwabb's A Darker Shade of Magic (2015).

The first in a trilogy, the novel's main pull is its central conceit, which it sets up very quickly and adroitly: there are four worlds, which used to be connected by magical gates, and all of which have an important nexus: London. Following a kind of magical plague/invasion in one of the worlds, the gates are severed, and the Londons (and, presumably, worlds), develop into four different versions: Grey London, which seems to be our own (with the novel starting c.1820); rich & vibrant Red London, where magic is plentiful; White London, looking kind of post-apocalyptic and starved for magic; and finally Black London, an unknown and presumably uninhabited realm where magic destroyed everything.

The story follows Kell, a Red London "Antari" who can move between world, doing business for their royalty, and who is caught up in a White London plot to expand (using the power of a Black London artifact). Along the way, he meets our other protagonist, Grey London thief and adventurer Lila Bard.

This is a fast, enjoyable read, and we all dug it. Plenty of criticisms, too, but above all this is a fun read. Notes and possible spoilers below:

Started off (as I believe the Chicago Nerds discussion did last year) with praise for the cover; it's great.

We spent some time talking about Schwabb and her pen names sometimes V.E., sometimes Victoria, and "partially" connected to whether or not she's writing YA. Then talked about whether this qualifies as YA or not—consensus seems to be no, although it has some features thereof. In our YA discussion, also compared to F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack/Young Jack series, which includes both YA and non-YA installments.

The biggest draw for a lot of us with this work is the central idea: the dimensionality, Londons "like a stack of cards". We noted that multi-dimensionality, alternate versions (or multiple versions occupying the same space) is a device that's been used a lot before in SFF, and that's not a bad thing: it lets us click to Schwabb's particular world-building here much quicker, without her having to spend a ton of time explaining it. Some aspects of the Londons & moving between them compared to Besz & Ul Qoma in Mieville's The City and the City, which Sulzer SFF discussed a while back (and which we heartily recommend).

Though the novel's lots of fun, we discussed the idea that it's really kind of tragic, with Red London really cool and the other 3 Londons on a lame-to-horrifying continuum.

Particularly fun though is Kell's many-sided coat!

Talked for a bit about some of the Grey London implications—they kinda sorta make this a reluctant alt-history novel: it seems like the history of magic & other worlds would have impacted British society a bit; it's also unexplained why Red London has English as the royal (though not common) language. The quasi-historical setting also made a few of us wince at anachronisms at points, like Barron's shotgun and Lila's undetectably-good prosthetic eye.

Also, the George III cameo brought Hugh Laurie in Blackadder to our minds.

Much, much discussion of the magic system & mechanics here. There's some fuzziness (there are 5 types of magic? Plus blood? And black?), but the portal mechanics and idea of magic as animate are very fun. We wondered if the worlds are now only tossing up one antari each (the book fairly shouts that Lila is one, though I suppose we don't know about Black London). We talked for a bit about the life-linking thingy that Kell does with Rhy, and compared it to Dragonheart.

We also got into the magic/politics interplay in Red London, wondering what Rhy's lack of magic implies for the future. (Rhy was compared to Bast in Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, by the way). Lots of discussion of Rhy & Kell's relationship, and how Lila fits in there—Lila & Kell seem like a very Luke/Leia dynamic, and throw a hint of Rhy/Lila romantic possibility in there and we've got some real YA love-triangle potential.

We debated Kell's real status with the Red London royal family, noting that despite his emotional closeness with Rhy he does seem like a slave/possession, and suspect we'll find out about his childhood in the sequels. Incidentally, when reading how he got his name—K.L. to Kay Ell to Kell—I misread and really thought this novel was going in a different direction for a second, one where Kell draws Astonishing Powers from our Yellow Sun. Also, I griped for a second about a peeve of mine, which is "uncritical fantasy monarchies".

On a more serious level, talked about the "have a female character kill an attempted rapist to prove how badass she is" trope, and how THAT'S kind of troubling—especially the way it's dealt with here—and how the novel has a LOT of death in it but doesn't take it super-seriously/realistically. I.E. people don't drop over instantly/cleanly dead from knife-wounds to the gut. Also, the novel introduces this sup-plot that seems like it should be a HUGE deal—Black Magic zombie/demon/possession thing that starts killing people in Red & Grey London at a frantic pace (and with disturbing sexual violence overtones)—but then the novel just kinds of forgets to focus on it, and then they all mostly go "poof!" when Kell & Lila beat the big bad. It's not even clear if Kell & Lila know that the black magic zombie horde is happening, they just kind of defeat it accidentally.

On the topic of villains, we both loved and hated the Danes qua villains—love because they're so over the top, but also hate because they're SO cliche, just constantly moustache-twirling.

Talked a bit about Lila's desire to be a pirate, piracy as the kind of career pinnacle for thieves, and the history of women pirates, including as revealed by the Whydah shipwreck (now a cool museum piece). We noted that it wasn't thievery for greed so much as freedom & adventure that motivate Lila.

All of our critiques aside, must re-iterate that we really enjoyed this, with several of us having already read the sequel or planning to. It's the worldbuilding that mainly does it—little touches like the smells of the different Londons—and despite some writing issues the overall pace of the novel is really good and encourages fast reading. Also noted that this is an addition to a curious micro-genre of 19th century magick-y fantasy, including stuff like Norrel & Strange, Sorceror to the Crown, and The Night Circus (which Sulzer discussed a while back).

Good discussion! Sulzer's next discussion will be on Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, March 21st, and you can keep a lookout for this and other Sulzer Library book groups at the library page.

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