The winner of this year’s Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybils Award!
Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan. Disney-Hyperion, 2016.
Young Thorn, after a series of events gone wrong that are slowly disclosed to the reader, is up for sale as a slave. He’s bought by Tyburn, the executioner to Castle Gloom of the dark kingdom of Gehenna. Naturally, being taken to a place reported to be defended by the undead only increases his desire to escape and continue his hunt for his missing father. Events on the way change his mind, though, and he is forced to reevaluate his preconceptions about Castle Gloom.
There are no more zombie warriors at Castle Gloom, though there are plenty of bats and its graveyards are impressive. Its princess, Lilith, Lady of Shadows, is a girl his own age, thrust suddenly into ruling the kingdom by the assassination of the rest of her family, all except her drunken Uncle Pan, who never could use magic anyway. Lily, being a girl, isn’t allowed to use the family’s magic and so is being forced to marry Gabriel, prince of the Kingdom of Light, to end the war that has defined both kingdoms. Also joining the group of kids the same age coming together for individual reasons is Prince K’leef of the Kingdom of Fire, held hostage by the Kingdom of Light, who finds Gabriel just as much of an obnoxious bully as do Thorn and Lily. Lily’s former best friend, her maidservant Rose, never quite makes it into the gang.
Thus follows a pleasing adventure in which, predictably, Thorn puts skills learned from his father to good use and discovers secrets in the castle, Lily finds success in ignoring rules about proper female behavior, and K’leef thinks about his future. Unpredictably, Lily has some good arguments in favor of using undead instead of living people as soldiers and has a very nasty shock coming to terms with the extent she’s relied on her privilege. Also unpredictably but happily, K’leef is initially set up to be a traitor but escapes that role, though I still felt his character could have been better developed.
I was a little and perhaps unreasonably put off by little things like Thorn’s written-out country boy accent and added a new item to my list of modern things included in historical fiction and fantasy that make me and no one else twitchy. This list has included potatoes (a New World discovery), velvet before the 14th century, and walzes prior to the 19th. Lily has a Labrador puppy, which struck me as wrong. I looked it up to be sure – the breed dates to 1903 – and led me to the Medieval Dog Breeds wiki , where I decided that a lap-sized spaniel would have felt perfect for her.
It’s a high action story with a balance of humor and darkness in a world well-developed enough for more stories. The sequel, Dream Magic, comes out in April. It would pair well with the contemporary Dark Lord fantasy series by Jamie Thompson.