A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Young adult / fantasy

Rating: 3 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

This was a fairly entertaining summer read. This isn’t the book’s fault at all, but I have noticed that, unfortunately, lately I am finding “young adult” books harder to enjoy. On Goodreads, reviewers rave about the beautiful writing–but I thought it was mediocre; the characters–even though I found them stereotypical and flat; the worldbuilding–which was okay, but nothing to write home about. Basically I think this book lacks depth. But it excels at action and keeping interest. It’s 400 pages; I read it in two days, easy, without really trying or having to motivate myself to read at all. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a page-turner but it has a similar appeal.

It’s true that it is getting harder and harder for a book–any book–to wow me; when I was younger I gave out 4 and 5 stars like candy, but with every book I read I learn more about my tastes. I’m getting pickier. I’m almost frightened to see how cranky I’ll be about books 20 years from now.

There was some heteronormativity in the book–I mean, there is in most things I read, but since it felt like Schwab was phoning in so much of the book, it stood out to me more. There’s a line about how “oh gee, who I am, the guard of the prince, to judge who he takes into his bedroom even if it IS men” (like um okay you’re judging right now?). And a really awkward, forced line about “had Lila been a man, and the ships fair maidens guiding up their skirts, she could not have wanted them more”–like every man is into maidens hiking their skirts, or maidens at all. It was just an out-of-place metaphor that felt weird. And while I wouldn’t say it’s femmephobic exactly, I feel like Lila is very close to “exceptional woman” territory, and there seems to be little awareness of gender as a thing that exists outside of the mention of rape.

The more I examine the book after the fact, the more flaws I find, and think of scenes or writing that annoyed me. It did feel kind of rote to me, the characters felt more or less one dimensional (with the exception perhaps of Holland, but we don’t really know that for sure because he’s kinda ~mysterious~) and like the author had a list of things she was trying to hit. However, despite the fact that I did feel small flashes of annoyance during the reading experience, for the most part the action carried me along on a pretty good ride. The book had enough forward momentum that the things I was slightly annoyed by were not really things I focused on. There’s a lot going on, it’s a very plot-driven, what-ever-will-happen-to-our-heroes-next type of book, and I think that strategy really worked well for it. The drawback is that after the book is over, that urgent atmosphere disappears and I’m left feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the shortage of “meat.”

But of course all books can’t be all things to everyone. I think this was a pretty successful young adult fantasy novel; it just turns out I’m not terribly into those. I think it actually earned a pretty high rating considering. If you like adventure/action stories, and fantasy, and the comfort of predictability (albeit with some “darker shades,” because the book is a little more graphically violent than I think YA tends to be), this is probably your book!

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