Review taken from my Goodreads.
Rating — 2 stars
Surprise surprise, I didn’t like this! I mean, considering my terrible track record recently with YA and historical fiction, this book was just a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes I really hate disliking things that other people like. I mean, this just keeps happening to me — it happened with capitalism, Boris Johnson (apparently), the show Friends, Katniss and Peeta’s relationship in The Hunger Games, onions, and now this book. It’s disappointing because, contrary to what you’re probably all thinking of me, I don’t actually want to dislike things, especially pieces of media. I read books and watch films and TV to relax and to have a good time, so it’s always nicer to relax with something I enjoy that force myself through something I hate. However, I’ve been on Goodreads for a long while now — I made my old account when I was 12 — and it’s definitely changed what I want from a book, as well as making me far more critical of books.
By contrast, I’ve been reviewing films on Letterboxd for about nine months as of now and so most films I watch I’ll rate between 3.5 and 5 stars, mostly because I find it hard to think anything other than “I had fun watching a movie” after I watch a movie. Maybe it’s also because I’ve seen fewer films so my expectations are lower, or that films are over quicker so even bad films are slightly less torturous to sit through (a terrible book has wasted hours of my time and money, I want to rip it a new asshole as payback). Either way, I’m always far more critical of books than I am of movies.
However, despite all this, there’s one way to bypass that for me. If a book is well-written and has excellent characters or great worldbuilding, that’s all good — but what I really want from a book is an exciting plot that preferably hooks me in from the beginning. It doesn’t have to be an overly fast-paced thriller as I don’t mind books that are a little slower, but there needs to be some semblance of a plot there to hold my interest. Life’s just too short for me to have to hunker down and force myself through books like they’re homework assignments.
Therefore, for me, a book with mediocre characters, writing and/or worldbuilding but a gripping plot will most likely get a much higher rating from me than a book with excellent characters, writing and/or worldbuilding that bored me to death. It’s why I was reluctant to rate The Testaments as low as others who read it — although I didn’t like most elements of it, the plot really drew me in and I finished in about 3 days (an achievement for me, at least, since I usually take about a week to finish a 300-400 page book). It’s also why I’ve put The Goldfinch on hold, as even though Donna Tartt’s prose is beautiful and I, for once, like the characters, Boris especially, I’m currently halfway through the 800 page book and there’s still no plot to speak of.
That was one of the major problems with A Darker Shade of Magic — there wasn’t even a glimmer of plot up until about 45%, which is far too late to get me on board. I know this is a trilogy, but come on! Trilogies need three separate plotlines so each book feels fresh and interesting. Sure, you can have one overarching plot to stop the bad guy or whatever, but each book needs something individual to happen or the trilogy will start to drag incredibly quickly.
When the plot was finally introduced, I had to put the book down for a second to marvel at the sheer unoriginality of what was going to take place in the latter half of the book. Really, another McGuffin-based plot? It didn’t work in The Rise of Skywalker and it didn’t work here either. I could tell the entire trajectory of the rest of the book from one conversation that Kell had with Lila when the plot was introduced — they go to Red London and get into some trouble, go to White London and get into some trouble, then there’s some sort of twist that sets up the next book in the series. The twist may not have exactly happened, but I was pretty on the nose. There’s nothing wrong with being able to tell where the story is going, per se — that’s how we get this anti-spoiler-at-all-costs culture being perpetuated by people like the Russo brothers, as if a shocking ending is what defines your enjoyment of a piece of media most of all — but this plot was so predictable it hurt.
Another element of the plot that made me squirm was the painfully obvious romance between Lila and Kell that was being hinted at constantly. As soon as Lila’s character was introduced, I said “Oh, here we go” out loud, because their romance would be so flat and boring that it would cause me physical pain. I’m going to start demanding reparations for all these insipid, dull straight romances in YA books because this has gone on long enough.
The reason I hated the romance so much, though, was because Lila and Kell had a maximum of 1.5 personality traits combined, which leads me nicely onto the characters, who were all flat and one-dimensional. The author seems to think that the best way to write characters is to give them one defining personality trait and leave it at that. Lila’s trait was being spunky, Rhy’s was being bisexual, Holland’s was being menacing, and I couldn’t work out of the life of me work out what Kell’s was supposed to be, and he’s the main fucking character! The one that hurt the most, though, was Rhy’s, because he’s apparently supposed to be like Jack Harkness, which is blatantly not true because Jack has more to him than just flirting with everyone (probably because Russell T. Davies is a good writer).
They were all pretty cliched, too. Lila was the girl in every historical fiction book who acts and dresses in a stereotypically male way to show how different and tough she is, who has a hard set jaw and a mysterious past she doesn’t talk about; Rhy was the bi guy who’ll flirt with and/or fuck anything that breathes (totally not a harmful stereotype there); Kell had a vaguely tragic past but, to be honest, was too bland to be any sort of cliche.
But, if I hated this book this much (which I clearly did), then why am I giving it two stars instead of one? It turns out that there are actually some parts of the book I liked. It had well-written prose, and I found the concept of the parallel Londons and the worldbuilding surrounding that interesting as it is a unique concept.
However, the magic system was pretty lacklustre. Another elemental magic system that involves manipulating the four elements, as well as blood if you’re really powerful and edgy — where have I seen that before, where it was done much better? The Antari were also pretty overpowered and there was also nothing particularly unique about them. Another magical type person with far stronger power than any of their magical contemporaries, who’s also the last of their kind? Those were the bad OCs I came up with to put into my Wattpad books when I was 11. Please, spare me.
In conclusion, I should really pay more attention to plot summaries instead of just picking up books because their premises sound really interesting. I’ll also be taking an extended break from YA historical fiction (and probably historical fiction in general) because at this point I’d rather have my only reading material for the coronavirus lockdown be a mixture of Ayn Rand and Frerard fanfiction written in 2005 than pick up any other book in that genre for a long time. I also, again, won’t be picking up the rest of the series — I only read sequels to books I rated at least 3.5 stars, because I’m not made of money, time, energy or patience.