As it happens, Allison and Alyssa read V.E. Schwab’s new novel, A Darker Shade of Magic. Rather than have a “Lila-like” fight over who would recommend it, we’re joining forces to discuss it together.
A Darker Shade of Magic is Schwab’s second adult novel (she also writes for YA and MG audiences), which is important to note because the book can get, well, adult at times. Schwab spends a good portion of the beginning of the novel establishing the dynamic between four parallel Londons. In Red London magic exists harmoniously with the mundane. Most readers will recognize Regency era Grey London, where magic has died out. White London is ruled by tyrannical siblings who savagely abuse magic. And Black London is a mystery; Schwab only lets us know that its citizens were destroyed by magic and that the doors in and out have been sealed. It’s to Schwab’s credit that she can make four distinct Londons come alive.
Schwab’s worldbuilding is sublime in this novel, but her characters make it a book we were both dying to recommend. The novel’s protagonist Kell is Red London’s royal emissary and one of the few magicians left in the world who can travel between the Londons. When he crosses paths with Grey London’s Lila Bard, a cross-dressing thief, the story really starts to get interesting.
Allison: I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I love Lila Bard on Twitter. What did you think about her?
Alyssa: I love Lila too! She’s stealthy, clever, witty, tough, independent, confident, and brave. Lila is an ideal heroine, but she’s not perfect (a good thing). She’s authentic and unique, but she also reminds me of other fictional “kick ass” heroines I’ve grown to love: Buffy, Celaena (Throne of Glass), and Katsa (Graceling). But Lila’s perhaps more lovable than those characters because she’s not an assassin or a slayer.
Allison: I totally agree. I think it’s her vulnerability that really gets me. She’s not Buffy, Caleana or Katsa in that she doesn’t have any “chosen one” special powers for most of the story (though I’m wondering if that’s going to change in subsequent books). All of her power comes from hard won experience on the streets.
I read a review where someone called her “unsympathetic at times” and I didn’t find that to be true at all. Maybe it’s because she’s so ruthless? I don’t know, I kind of loved that about her. To me, Lila is what every good pirate or thief should be: arrogant and smart-mouthed. I think when thieves and pirates are men and are those things we call them “dashing” — I’m willing to say it: Lila is all kinds of dashing.
Some of the reviews I read talked about her “ambitiousness” in a slightly negative way. I feel like what lots of people are reacting to is that there’s some big gender role-reversal going on. I think you could switch Kell and Lila’s names around and the novel would fall into something most people would recognize as a typical fantasy adventure, albeit a progressive one. Kell isn’t weak, but he’s certainly more sensitive than Lila.
Alyssa: I agree with you. She is ruthless, but she’s had to be to survive — and to survive on her own. And I don’t think she’s an unsympathetic character either. I like that she’s not consumed with shame and self-doubt. She believes in herself and in her abilities to survive, and she’s strong-willed, unapologetic, and doesn’t feel sorry for herself. I think those are positive attributes in this case; especially considering how women are supposed to behave in this society.
I love this book’s gender role-reversal and that she subverts female stereotypes. She craves adventure above all else, and, you’re right, if she were a male character this would be a typical fantasy adventure. She gets into plenty of scrapes, but she’s never a “damsel in distress” and she often fights off her foes or comes to Kell’s rescue. She’s willing to fight or even kill anyone who threatens her or stands in her way, but she also develops more of a conscience as her friendship with Kell develops.
Allison: I could talk about Lila for hours, but I’m dying to know what you thought of Kell, since the story is ostensibly about him.
Alyssa: In some ways he is more stereotypically female, and he’s also had a cushier upbringing (even if he doesn’t always see it that way). One of my favorite parts in the book is when Lila gets annoyed at Kell for feeling sorry for himself. He views himself as the royal family’s prized possession, but Lila insists he is part of a family — and a royal one at that — which is more than Lila can imagine for herself.
Allison: Another thing to love about Lila, she’s not afraid to snap Kell back to reality! Even though Lila is certainly not as well traveled or educated as Kell, I feel like he’s the one that sometimes needs to have his worldview rearranged. Overall, I like Kell. I think Schwab is building something with him that will get more complex as time goes on.
Alyssa: Me too. Especially considering he smuggles forbidden magical objects, making him morally complex as well. It’s interesting how I feel about Kell. I like him too, but Lila is the more dashing character. I didn’t fall for Kell like I do some of the swoon-worthy male characters in books. Nor did I want him and Lila to necessarily develop a romance, and I enjoyed their adventurous friendship.
Allison: I know, right? I like their slightly chaste “kiss for luck” tradition. It feels friendly and not particularly sexy. Even if a romance develops later on, I love reading a story about men and women where they can be friends and partners, without being in love right away.
Allison Carr Waechter has never felt the urge to sail the high seas, but if she shoots you in the leg, it’ll be for a Lila-like reason. This week she’s stuck in mundane Grey St. Louis, watching the rain wash away the snow as she grades resumes and cover letters for her business writing course. If you want to help her procrastinate, hit her up on Twitter.
Alyssa Raymond is dreaming of faraway places as she awaits yet another snow storm. In the summer she would rather steal treasures that have washed ashore than sail amidst the many sea monsters that invade Marblehead Harbor. As soon as the snow banks melt, you’ll find her hanging out with the witches in Salem. Until then, she’s on Twitter.