By V.E. Schwab
There is Grey London, full of smoke and industry and one mad king; Red London, with magic that flows like a river through its center; White London, built on bone and starvation, ruled by bloodthirsty kings; and Black London. Nobody talks about Black London.
Kell is an Antari, one of the few who can travel freely between the worlds of the various Londons. While officially he is a messenger, he also smugles artifacts from world to world. The practice is illegal – and dangerous, as Kell finds out, when a forbidden relic from Black London ends up in his possession. Lila Bard is a thief from Grey London, who saves Kell, then robs him, then forces him to take her on an adventure. Together they might save the worlds – or end them entirely.
Mmm, yes, more world-hoping fantasy with enjoyable characters, please.
First, for some not-so-positives: this book goes through side characters like paper plates, which can make you wonder why you even bothered to invest thought into this guy when he dies and/or leaves the story a chapter later; and the pacing is a bit odd, taking its time in the beginning to set up practically every detail that will become important later, and then transitioning to a breakneck speed in the second half.
But then we get to the good stuff, and boy is there good stuff. The world-building in this first novel is minimal but interesting (the idea that there always needs to be a monarchy in London, the fractured history of magic and the different relation each world has to it, the fact that PEOPLE SPEAK DIFFERENT LANGUAGES IN DIFFERENT PLACES HALLELUJAH, the layering of the worlds, the Antari, etc.) The writing uses colours to very strong effect, and the descriptions of magic in particular were nice and evocative. The sheer amount of sensuality in pretty much every character interaction is enjoyable mostly because it’s so rare to see characters, particularly men, react physically to one another’s presence in fiction.
And then there’s Lila Bard, the best thing to come out of this already pretty great book. Oh, let me count the ways in which I love Lila Bard. She’s snarky, and scrappy, and obsessed with pirates and adventure; she has enough survival instincts to mostly resist the pull of dark magic (because yeah, that shit is cool but also you’re going to die); she’s so theatrical it gives me giggles. All hail Lila Bard.
Kell makes for a pretty good co-protagonist as well, overconfident in his abilities at first but eventually realizing just how over his head he is despite his innate skill at magic. He clearly revels in his powers but feels conflicted over the social position that being Antari gives him, and like most privileged youth he feels the confusion of wanting to be angry at the world without actually being able to figure out what he’s angry against.
It’s always harder to explain why I enjoyed a book than why I disliked it, but just take my word for it: this book is good. It’s not perfect (very few things are), but it is wildly enjoyable and I highly recommend it.
And I can’t wait to read the sequel, which I hope will all be about Lila’s swashbuckling adventures on the high seas.