It’s been a while since I’ve returned to my YA roots. I always say I like YA and I certainly have fond memories of many books from my own youth — yet other than Harry Potter or works by Mr. Gaiman, I rarely dip into that well. So it was exciting to pick up A Darker Shade of Magic.
And this book certainly hits all the right marks to be a great YA book! Magic and daring! Precocious young characters who find hidden wells of strength to overcome the obstacles placed in front of them! A well-defined (though still vague enough to not get bogged down in) magic system! It’s got it all.
I had also forgotten just how light a good YA book could be. So it was very pleasant to see the pages fly by. Moreover, this book is easy to read without being overly simple — a task that is harder to pull off than it looks.
So A Darker Shade of Magic is poised to be a classic. Except…
One key area where the book does fall into the trap of being overly simplistic is in the villains. Their villainy is shown through purposeless and gratuitous cruelty that seems to be motivated entirely by their knowledge that they are villains and need to act a certain way. Their evil plan seems to be “We have ruined one world; may as well ruin another because that is what villains do.” The reader can imagine deeper motivations for the Danes, but it’s a lot of work because the characters themselves seem unaware of anything more. They were plopped into the story as villains so that is what they will do.
Great stories derive from great conflicts, but great conflicts come along when the antagonist could be seen to be the hero of their own story and not the villain of someone else’s. The relationship between the siblings points to something richer but it goes entirely unexplored. Even Tom Riddle had a backstory, you know?
Similarly, the villainous plot is mostly perfunctory. I have mostly lost patience with SF stories that feature heavy use of unbeatable mind control. It gives the villain a great advantage without any real story work. Imagine the hero’s brother torn between multiple obligations who has to make a terrible choice between going along with the villains plans or staying true to the people he cares about. And imagine the villain subtly working to make the “right” choice be betrayal. That would be a great story! It would explore notions of family and honor and the no-win scenario! It would show off the villain’s chops as a manipulator and a master of the long game. This book, though, just uses a spell to achieve the same effect. Off screen.
It reduced the complex relationship between Kell and Rhys to just being yet another plot obstacle. It also made the Danes seem rather impatient and inept. After taking control of the king and queen, they had won! They could have easily leveraged that into whatever longterm goals they had. Instead, they goaded the one person on all the worlds who could stop them. It doesn’t make sense and makes the entire book feel forced.
All of which could have been avoided by eschewing mind control. Even YA deserves more than that these days.
Ultimately, A Darker Shade of Magic is a reasonably charming book that is light and fun to read but is somewhat done-in by shallow characters and drop-in plot contrivances. Still, the universe has potential and book two will probably be worth taking a look at.