Shadow Magic gets off to such a dreadful start – with its flat prose, slow pacing, and weak characters – that it initially seems doomed. But Karen Whidden concocted an interesting enough premise for her story that not even the weaknesses in the telling can completely ruin it. That only makes the book that much more torturous, as the author keeps tantalizing the reader with brief flashes of compelling material that never amounts to much.
Guilt-ridden after the death of his younger brother, Egann of Rune refuses the throne of his people, the Fae. However, he does agree to wear the Amulet of Gwymyrr, which rightfully belongs to the king, until they are able to find someone else to assume the throne. He then travels into the human world, only to have the amulet stolen from him in his sleep.
He believes the responsible party is Deirdre of the Shadows – a shadow dancer unable to be exposed to sunlight. She dances by night, drawing power from the moon to bless and benefit the people for whom she dances. Believing she bewitched him, Egann demands the amulet from her. Of course, she doesn’t have it and is astonished he could think it of her. Then a group called the Maccus emerge, determined to kill all the shadow dancers, whom they believe are evil. Egann and Deirdre find themselves on the road, searching for the Gwymyrr and eluding the Maccus who are somehow connected with the amulet’s theft and a rising evil.
There’s material for a good story here. Whiddon has some interesting ideas for her fantasy world with the Fae, the shadow dancers, the Maccus, and how they are all bound together. But to say her ideas aren’t executed well would be a massive understatement.
The first portion of this book is simply aggravating. Egann’s belief that Deirdre stole the Gwymyrr is a weak contrivance to get the story started, since he can sense who has been in contact with the amulet, and he (finally) senses she has not. The author could have found a better way of bringing the two of them together. The initial stages of their journey, and the story, seem aimless, as the Egann and Deirdre wander around with no real destination or sense that they’re getting anywhere. He loses her, he finds her. An advisor from Rune keeps popping up to drop chunks of exposition and history, and in between these encounters they drift a bit, running into the occasional villainous type to make things that much more ominous.
The meandering journey might not be so dull if the characters weren’t so shallow. Deirdre is pleasant and honorable and generally inoffensive. For a hero, Egann is too much of a whiny mope. He’s such a dolt that when his sob story about why he feels guilty about his brother’s death is revealed, I had to agree with him, “Yep, that really was a stupid thing to do, dummy.” The romance is weak, interrupted by some separations, and Egann spends far too much time being aloof to see why he holds any appeal for Deirdre other than physical attraction and any sympathy she might have for his sad past. They first make love far too early in the book, when they barely know each other, after which Egaan makes a move that is certain to endear him to readers who love jerk heroes and no one else: he decides she must have bewitched him and he was under a spell to act this way. What a prince.
The entire story seems a little vague around the edges, with a lack of detail and atmosphere. There’s no real sense of place, and no point in designating the setting as Wales when it might as well take place in any random made-up land. While the history of the Fae and the Maccus is interesting enough, it isn’t placed in a world that comes to life in this story.
Things marginally improve once the villain finally becomes more of a tangible presence and less of a nebulous threat. The story gains a sense of urgency and forward momentum it didn’t have before. The villain is appropriately evil, the scheme nicely diabolical, and there are some creepy moments and tense scenes leading up to the climax. But at best, the story is only tepid rather than truly gripping.
Shadow Magic is a bit of a tease. There’s just enough of a good story lurking beneath the surface to pull the reader along from event to event, but it’s neither written nor developed well enough to make it a truly good read.