Thorn is not good at being a cooperative slave, yet something about him catches the attention of Tyburn, the executioner of Gehanna, kingdom of dark shadow magic. Thorn has no desire to spend any time in Gehanna, what with all the stories of vampires and zombies that are told of it. But he's not given any real choice, though he's determined not to be sidetracked from his quest for his missing father.
Lilleth, the 13 year old queen of Gehanna, doesn't have lots of room to chose her own destiny either. Her parents and brother were murdered, and though she wasn't trained in the necromancy that is her family gift, because of being a girl, she is now queen of the beleaguered country of Shadows (where most people, it turns out, live perfectly ordinary quasi-medieal lives sans vampires and zombies). She must marry the heir of a neighboring kingdom (after an engagement of several years), and he turns out to be utterly insufferable. On a less personal issue, his country's magic is based on light, the antithesis of her own heritage, and she has no desire to leave her home and its shadows for his bright realm. And then her puppy is poisoned, after drinking wine meant for her (for those distressed by puppy death--this is the kingdom of shadow magic, so the dead aren't necessarily gone for good....)
Lily and Thorn become friends and allies as they work to solve the mystery of the would-be assassin and the mystery surrounding the deaths of Lily's family. In the process, each explores their gifts for magic. Lily has a strong affinity for the shadow magic of her ancestors, though it is forbidden to her, and Thorn has an uncanny way with animals, taming and learning to ride the giant bat that has inadvertently been awakened. (Side note--giant bats don't appeal to me, per se, but I found myself making an exception for Hades. He's a fine giant bat).
There's plenty of excitement, but the dangerous adventures leave room for the reader to grow to care about the characters. Though it doesn't feel wildly original to someone who's read 100s and 100s of books with similar stories (give or take), that won't be an issue for the target audience (political intrigue usual happens after middle grade). Shadow Magic works very nicely indeed as a gripping, coherent, and fascinating story of young people figuring out who they are. Give this one to a Ranger's Apprentice fan, or a fan of Sage Blackwood's Jinx. I am very tempted to foist it on my own 13 year old over Christmas break.
The book got a very negative review on Amazon from someone who felt it had a liberal agenda because the good guys are the dark magic ones, and the light magic folks are less good. However, it's made pretty clear that the magical powers of shadow magic are only bad if the person wielding them is bad, and if there was a more subtle liberal agenda (perhaps the minor point that Thorn's father became an outlaw because the family needed to poach to live, which I guess could be construed as subversively threatening the power and rights of the 1%) I missed it. Oh, and I just remembered there's a bit that can be read as anti-death penalty.
And now I will go see what Kirkus says. Hmm, we disagree. "A kingdom that embraces darkness but not evil is an interesting concept but not enough to make up for choppy pacing and flat characters; here’s hoping the sequel is better balanced." I don't remember any bits that dragged, but I was reading very quickly because of being interested, and I really didn't find the characters flat...I think it's one of those books where you are given enough to build up the characters in your own mind beyond the actual words on the page, which I am just fine with. The Kirkus reviewer also says-- "Encouraged by her beloved but chronically drunk uncle to marry for her people’s sake, Lily resists, a decision that seems unlikely, empowered, and selfish simultaneously." Geez. The kid's 13, her parents just got killed, and her putative fiancé is an ass. It's not like she resists with any realistic hope of an alternative, and she realizes she not in a position to decisively say "no." So I can confidently object to that opinion of the Kirkus reviewer.
Here's another review, at The Book Smugglers, with which I have no quibbles at all (which is nice for me).