James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Nobody Calls You Honey When You’re Sitting On a Throne

Shadow Magic  (Lyra, volume 1)

By Patricia C. Wrede 

23 Feb, 2019

Big Hair, Big Guns!


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Patricia C. Wrede’s 1982 debut novel Shadow Magic was the first novel published in what became her Lyra series. ISFDB lists it as the third Lyra novel, presumably on the basis of internal chronology. But the omnibus on my Kobo lists Shadow Magic as first book in the series. Lyra book order may be a problem like Narnia book order; one can wile away many a pleasant afternoon discussing which is the correct way to order the books and which way is obviously incorrect. (I vote for the correct way, as I am sure you do too.) 

Merchant Maurin Atuval has just been invited into the home of his new chum, aristocrat Har of the Noble House of Brenn, when he makes a sudden discovery. He is not the protagonist of this story. Har’s sister Alethia is. 

This becomes apparent as soon as Alethia is kidnapped by Lithmern. 

Lithia hates Alkyra and Alkyra hates Lithia. Lithia refrains from attacking the neighbouring kingdom because when they do, they get soundly trounced by the people of Alkyra. Recently, however, caravans have been vanishing, no doubt the work of roguish Lithmern. Why the Lithmern feel secure enough to start raiding again is unclear, but they must feel confident enough not only to raid, but to carry off Alethia as well. 

It does not take Alethia long to realize there is something off about the raider’s leader. Perhaps it is his odd manner. Perhaps it is the fact he has no face, only a shadowed blank. This being commands the respect and obedience of the Lithmern, which is why they do not hesitate to follow him into Brenn and why they follow him across the Wyrdwood, which is otherwise a dangerous place for the uninvited. 

The journey through Wyrdwood proves ill-considered. The shadowy man cannot protect his men against sleep spells laid in the path of unwelcome visitors. Alethia escapes while the raiders are sleeping. They pursue and confront her, only to discover that the Wyrd of the Wyrd are well armed and not at all keen on Lithmern. 

We soon learn that Lithia has fallen under the sway of the Shadow-born, the so-called Dark Men. Vanquished in the Wars of Binding ages ago, the Dark Men have somehow got their hands on a talisman of great power, have won the Lithmern to their side, and have hijacked unwilling human hosts as their vessels. Now they plan to invade Brenn, which is the first step toward conquering Alkyra. 

All Alkyra should unify to drive off the invaders. Alas, ever since the Crown of Alkyra and the Four Gifts were lost ages ago, Alkyra has lacked a proper monarch to lead the land. Instead they have a Regent and lords who do not much trust each other. Given time, the lords might combine against invaders, but time is something Brenn lacks. 

If only Brenn had a young woman of good character and the proper lineage, who could somehow find where the Crown and the Four Gifts were lost, who could unify Alkyra under a proper ruler, and so save the land from pure evil. Someone like Alethia. 


Canny readers may be able to spot the moment when the author appears to remember that a romantic subplot is required. 

What is it about the One True Ruler in Anglospheric fiction? I mean, even those of us provided with a monarch are aware that kings and queens are a chancy lot. They must be kept in line with the threat of Dutch armies, forced abdication, and in extreme cases, Mr. Choppy the Axe. Those nations without a monarch … well, Americans may pride themselves on their FREEEEDOM, but they are just as fond of fictional One True Rulers as their British (and Canadian and Australian and Kiwi, etc.) kin. There’s too dang much published SFF about the Chosen One who will save the day. 

My mass market paperback is packed away so I’ve cheated by reading the revised edition included in the Lyra ebook omnibus. The author has appended some interesting notes about her revision process. Those are worth the price of admission. 

This is Wrede’s first book. It’s not, I am sad to report, very good. In fact, it’s simply a mishmash of familiar tropes, save for the one exception: the central figure who saves the day is a young woman. Even by the 1980s this was not a typical authorial choice. Otherwise, this isn’t throw-the-book-across-the room offensive, but it is remarkably unremarkable. 

The book is interesting as a bog-standard example of mass-market fantasy in the 1980s, shortly after Del Rey’s success proved that that there was enormous sales potential in derivative secondary-universe quest fantasies. Kids in the 1970s who were tired of Lord of the Rings had to settle for stuff like The Dragon and the George, Enchanted Pilgrimage, and if they were very, very bad, The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul’s Bane. By the 1980s, there were more choices and sometimes better ones. 

Wrede went on to write much more interesting material. This particular example of her work is interesting because it was her debut — and also thanks to the notes included in the omnibus. 

Shadow Magic is available as part of an omnibus here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca) and here (Chapters-Indigo).