A Darker Shade of Magic: The Clashing Philosophies of Red and White London
V.E. Schwab is one of the most distinct voices in fiction today. The American author has tackled a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, and super hero narratives, breathing new life and ideas into storied genres. A prolific writer, Schwab has published more than ten books over the past decade, developing a passionate following from her fans and admirers.
One quality that distinguishes Schwab is her versatility as a story teller. Writing books for a variety of different readers and age groups, Schwab has constructed stories with a diverse cast of characters and fully realized worlds. In her debut novel The Near Witch, Schwab explored themes of paranoia, fear, and the ways these forces affect communities. In the ongoing “Villains” trilogy (2013’s Viscous and 2018’s Vengeful), Schwab turned the burgeoning super hero genre on its head by creating a narrative focused on the effects of power, violence, and trauma on the human psyche.
Both The Near Witch and Viscous illustrate Schwab’s ability to create nuanced characters and worlds, skills that are essential to the success of Schwab’s most prolific work: The Shades of Magic Trilogy. Starting with A Darker Shade of Magic, the author constructed a complex, nuanced group of interwoven worlds that offered a refreshing take on the fantasy genre. In the first novel of trilogy, Schwab explored the philosophies of Red and White London, two worlds with vastly different beliefs about society, government, and magic.
Red London views magic as a powerful, but sometimes dangerous resource. Many of Red London’s elders and leaders teach that magic needs to be treated as an equal; the forces of magic are to be guided or channeled rather than forced into servitude. In contrast, White London views magic as a force to be dominated. In White London, a spell caster bends magic to their will, forcing it to serve their purposes. The philosophies of Red and White London will come to a head in the conflict between protagonist Kell and his foil Holland, powerful magicians who sit at the crossroads of both philosophies.
The Symmetry and History of the Four Londons
The universe of A Darker Shades of Magic is divided into four interwoven worlds. Each world contains a city in roughly the same location across the different worlds which protagonist Kell Maresh calls “London” in order to differentiate and explain the relationship between the worlds. While a version of London exists in each of four worlds, the four worlds are vastly different with different styles of architecture, different affinities for magic, and different government and social structures. The worlds were more closely connected with “gates” allowing individuals to move between worlds, until about three years before Kell’s lifetime, when the flourishing Red London closed the gates to protect their interests and safety. Only Antari, rare and powerful magicians identified by their single black iris, can create temporary pathways between the different Londons. An Antari can create a pathways using a blood spell along with a token from the world they wish to visit. Antari must travel from one world to another world that borders their current location. For example, an Antari in White London would need to pass through Red London before making their way to Grey London and vice versa.
While this set up may sound complicated, Schwab’s meticulous world building and story design allows the different locations to become distinct and familiar to the reader. Grey London is our 1800s London, given its name due to the scarcity of magic within the world. Red London is a flourishing city, the seat of the Arnesian nation. In Red London, Magic is commonplace with a set of laws and punishments to regulate and control magic users. Kell describes the waters of Red London river, known as the Isle, as a “jewel, lit from within, a ribbon of constant light unraveling through Red London” (44). The Isle and Red London are lands that flourish with magic and power which has caused the world to thrive since the closure of the gates. While magic is plentiful in Red London, there are individuals who have weak connections to magic, such as Prince Rhys Maresh (protagonist Kell’s surrogate brother), whose lack of magic is seen as an embarrassment for the Arnesian Royal Family. Kell, one of the only Antari of Red London, is the adopted son of King and Queen of Arnes, and the adopted prince serves as an envoy to the other Londons.
While magic is flourishing in Red London, magic in White London is crumbling. The decline of White London is tied to its immediate proximity to Black London. White London, where magic is more powerful than in Red London, was left to fend for itself against the out-of-control magic of Black London. While White London was able to keep the forces of Black London at bay, the cost was a drastic decline in that once-flourishing world. At the time of A Darker Shade of Magic, Kell describes White London as a wilting world where magic is in a state of decline, slowly receding from the world. Kell explains that the remaining magic of White London is “bitter…and it [magic] bleeds the world’s life and warmth… leaving only the pale and bloated corpse behind” (87). White London’s citizens are obsessed with controlling magic, often using tattoos, carvings on their skins, and brands to bind magic, and holding on to “what little power they had” (88). Socially, White London is in a constant state of flux, with a new ruler rising up and ruthlessly slaughtering the previous tyrant. In A Darker Shade of Magic, White London is ruled by the ruthless Astrid and Athos Dane, a cruel set of twin monarchs who specialize in magic used to dominate and control the body and will of others. Using this magic, the Dane Twins have enslaved White London’s Antari Holland. Astrid and Athos take pleasure in torturing and toying with Holland, who is bound by a magical soul seal, even forcing the powerful Antari to commit self harm for their own amusement. In White London, a person is either a master or a slave, with control and power as the most prized qualities in the dying world.
The last London is known as Black London. By Kell’s lifetime, Black London has achieved a myth-like-status, with most people knowing little about the place other than its downfall. According to Kell, Black London was the most powerful of all the worlds; it was a world with a “wealth of magic in its veins” (23). Hundreds of years ago, the inhabitants of Black London began to be consumed by their magic. The people allowed magic into their bodies and minds, not bothering to tame, balance, or properly control the torrential magical forces within their world. For Kell and other Red Londoners, Black London is a warning that when not properly controlled or balanced, magic will lead to disaster. While training with his brother, Kell reminds Rhys that the intemperance of Black London allowed rampant and dangerous magic to feed “on them [Black London] until it ate their bodies, and their minds, and then their souls” (24). The magic of Black London took the people as its hosts, like a parasite or infectious disease, consuming Black London and threatening to boil over into the other worlds. The dangers of this out-of-control magic led Red London to seal the gates between worlds, which left White London to beat back the magic that “spread like a plague (190). The leaders of Red London greatly feared the corrupting magic and influence of Black London, which resulted in Red London purging all known information and artifacts from Black London. The purges reduce Black London to a cautionary tale of a world that was consumed by magic and its own folly.
Red London – Balancing and Cultivating Magic In A Flourishing World
Kell, the protagonist of A Darker Shade of Magic, is raised by Red London’s King Maxim and Queen Emira Maresh as a surrogate son. Then young Antari has a complex relationship with the royal family, sometimes feeling like more of a “possession than a prince” (52). Regardless of how Kell feels about his adoptive family, the Antari has been irrevocably influenced by his upbringing in Red London and the training he received from Tieren Serense, a powerful magic wielder and advisor to the royal family. The influences of these different forces and groups have informed Kell’s ideas about magic and how to harness and use magic. For Kell and other Red Londoners, magic is a force to be cultivate, managed, and respected.
In his years of training, Kell has learned that magic needs to be respected as a powerful force. Kell asserts that magic must be treated “as equal, or even better, as supplicant” (78). For Kell, there is a delicate balancing act of guiding magic to serve your purposes and not letting that magic consume or overwhelm you. In common with powerful resources such as water, electricity, and gasoline, magic has the power to accomplish great things, but also has the ability to cause great destruction if not used correctly. An adept from Red London views magic as a living force, one that must be respected.
Balance is another key aspect within the philosophies of Red London. A crucial lesson learned from Black London is that too much magic or too powerful magic is corrupting and corrosive. Red London has instilled the importance of balance from an early age, with the almost scripture like credo: “Power in balance. Balance in power” (86). Magic is a force of nature, like water or fire, which can be dangerous when out of balance with the world and users around it. Magic needs to be wielded with “reverence as well as caution” (86). Kell and the denizens of Red London have constructed a flourishing world by carefully considering, monitoring, and regulating their use of magic.
White London – A Ravaged World Ruled Through Violence and Coercion
While Red London safely distanced itself from Black London, White London was left to battle the all consuming, corrosive magic of Black London. The battle against Black London left White London transformed, changing from a thriving, vibrant world into a world sapped of its vigor. Not only was White London’s landscape changed, the battle with Black London also irrevocably changed the philosophy of White London. After battling the viscous, sentient magic of Black London, magicians of the White London saw magic as a force that would wreck havoc if left uncontrolled. As such, White London saw magic as a force that needed to be controlled and subjugated.
Visually, Schwab goes to great lengths to differentiate the derelict White London from the flourishing Red London. While Red London is described as a “jewel”, White London is described as a world permanently stained “dark with blood” (88). Red London’s river is naturally red, a sign of its power, while White London’s blood stains are symbols of a world that is in the process of dying. White London exists as a twilight world, coated in an eternal layer of “snow-or ash” like a world in a post nuclear environment.
White London’s natural decline is intertwined with their social and governmental collapse. The once thriving world has descended into a survival of the fittest wasteland, where violence, torture, and coercion are regularly used to capture and maintain power. In A Darker Shade of Magic, Astrid and Athos Dane are the latest manifestation of the decline of White London. Known for their cunning, the rulers savor their ruthless victories by displaying bodies and bones to “commemorate those they have killed” (89).
Holland, White London’s powerful but enslaved Antari, acts as a foil for Kell. After years of struggling to survive in a viscous world, Holland has internalized many of White London’s grim philosophies. Holland, who lives as a slave, asserts that a magician is either magic’s master or “its slave” (172). While Red London learned to cultivate and balance magic, Holland and the other denizens of White London learned that magic must be controlled by any means necessary. The older Holland views Kell, who has relied on his ability to balance magic rather than totally control it, as some who has “never had to be strong” (337). The upbringing and life experiences of Holland have created fundamental differences between the two Antari that also serve to perfectly symbolize the differences between White and Red London.
Black London and The Antari – Magic At Its Most Potent and Dangerous
While the magic wielders of Red and White London each hold different philosophies over how to use and treat the forces of magic, the Antari of all worlds sit at the intersection of the different philosophies of Red, White, and Black London. The Antari’s abilities allow them to tap into magical forces in a way that separates them from their peers and gives them incredible power.
In A Darker Shade of Magic, the color black has crucial symbolic importance, representing power in its purest forms. The term “Black London” is simply a reference to the fourth world’s collapse, but also a testament to how deeply powerful the magic and magicians of Black London were. The world is described by Kell as the place of untamed power where every man, women, and child spoke the “language of magic” (121). The ability to communicate so directly and so intimately with magic fueled Black London’s incredible power. Black Londoners grew more and more powerful as they accepted magic without “walls, without rules, without anything but want or will” (126). The downfall of Black London was fueled by their immense power and lack of temperance, a fear so potent that Red London found it necessary to “forcibly erase” or “ward against” the power that consumed their neighbor (121).
Schwab’s use of the color black to symbolize of power is also present in the Antari, the magic users that include Kell and Holland (along with key character Lila Bard). Each Antari is born with an eye with a natural colored iris and one eye with a pure black iris. Though the Antari are rare, this black eye is a symbol of the raw and unique power of the Antari. In Red London, Kell is identified by his eye as “the black eyed prince” and treated with equal amounts of respect and fear. The black eye marks Kell and Holland as different, a liability in the power hungry world of White London. Regardless of the world, the black eye mark the Antari as “the other” capable of creating and reshaping the world around them.
Throughout the narrative, Kell links his single black eye to the blood that flows in his veins. Kell views his single black eye as the “mark of magic” which is deeply connected to the Antari’s control over blood magic (58). In A Darker Shade of Magic, blood is a tool used by Antari to accomplish their most powerful magic, something that is exclusive to Antari. While talented adepts can manipulate fire, earth, water, air, or bone, only the Antari command blood, which has a “will of its own” separate from the other elements (79). The Antari use their blood magic to command “the world around them”, making the Antari the most powerful and potent magicians across all the worlds (57). The single black of the Antari represent their unique powers and commands over blood, a constant symbol of the power that Antari possess.
Conclusion – A Clash of Philosophies That Sets The Stage For A Darker Shade of Magic‘s Sequels
V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic stands as a complex examination the different ways of viewing and controlling magic and power. While Red London believes that magic needs to be used with caution and balance, White London believes that a magic user must treat magic as its slave and subjugate the force. The different philosophies are embodied by protagonist Kell and antagonist Holland, whose battles are a central plot point of the novel. Without Kell and Holland to embody and symbolize their respective worlds, the novel would struggle to establish fully realized world for its characters to inhabit.
As Kell and Holland come into contact with a powerful artifact from Black London, a stone known as Vitari, the clashing philosophies will be tested in ways that Kell, Holland, and the Danes could not possibly predict. In a battle with and against the powers of Black London, the reader and characters will be asked to question which philosophies will better serve the magic wielders in Red and White London? Will the temperance of Red London help Kell control and balance the dangerous powers of the stone, or will the philosophies of White London help Holland and the Danes control the previously untamed powers of Black London? The answers to this question will help define A Darker Shade of Magic‘s two sequels and fundamentally shifting the balance of power within the four Londons.
The philosophies of Red, White, and Black London are further explored in A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light. In these books, Schwab complicates the relationships between the different worlds, along with the relationship between Kell and Holland, a choice that adds nuance to the worlds that Schwab’s pioneered in the trailblazing first third of her trilogy. With the announcement of a sequel trilogy set after the events of the first three books, it will be exciting to see how Schwab iterates and expands on the incredible vision she has already established.
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