I’ve seen this book kicking around the bookternet a ton over the past year, but, like I’m Judging You before it, it took a Nerdette podcast to make me actually read it. Thanks, Nerdette, for bringing me more delightful things!
I will say that before I started this book, I had the sense that it was going to be a Different Fantasy Novel, with defied genre stereotypes littered in its wake, but it is not that. It’s not not that, but a lot of the book is very bog-standard fantasy novel, with good guys versus bad guys and magic with consequences and the slightly newer trope of damsel not-so-very-much-in-distress-thank-you.
What is excellent, as I say about all new fantasy books that I love, is the world that Schwab has built. It’s a universe with four separate dimensions all squished up against each other, each containing the city of London and a certain pub inside the city, but with very little else the same. There’s “our” world, with Grey London, which has no magic; then Red London, which is full of happy magic; White London, with scary creepy magic; and finally Black London, which has been overrun by dark magic and thus cut off from from the other Londons.
Our main protagonist, Kell, is one of two sort of magic beings who can move between the Londons (except for Black, of course). He ostensibly takes only messages between the rulers of the different nations of which London is the capital, but he also dabbles in smuggling artifacts to the few knowledgeable collectors in each London, and also maybe saving some cool things for himself. This hobby, as you might guess, gets him in huge trouble when he inadvertently smuggles a piece of Black London back to his own Red London, and more trouble still when he tries to prevent its misuse.
Our second, not-a-damsel protagonist is Lila, a resident of Grey London whose most fervent wish is to become captain of a pirate ship, as you do. In the meantime, she’s a pickpocket of some renown, which gets her into trouble when she picks the pocket of a certain smuggler carrying a certain very dangerous item.
You can probably more or less figure out the plot from there — good guys, bad guys, etc. But getting to the end is the fun part, with interesting characters popping in and out (and out forever, as Schwab seems to have taken a page out of George R.R. Martin’s playbook) and sufficient intrigue and subterfuge to keep me flipping pages. The writing is fantastic, as well, announcing its tone from the very first sentence: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.” This seems like a pretty innocuous sentence all on its own, but I could go on for far too long about all the awesome tucked in tight in there.
My biggest gripe with the book was its big boss fight (spoiler?); based on the number of pages I had left as I got toward the end I was one hundred percent certain I’d be facing a cliffhanger ending, but instead Schwab tears through the fight almost as quickly and terribly as Stephenie Meyer once did, sacrificing the story for the sake of finishing it in however many pages she was allotted. I don’t say this much, but I would have preferred a cliffhanger.
Still, the rest of the book was so fun and delightful that I’ve already acquired the second one and am already enjoying it, so don’t take that complaint too seriously. I’m hoping my only gripe after the second book will be that the third one hasn’t come out yet!
Recommendation: For fans of fun, fast-paced fantasy and fascinating… magic. Shoot, what’s an f-word for magic?