Losing a rebellion is the best way to live a short life, and Nickalous Archer has no intention of doing that. However, after Nick’s father loses the war to the Night Emperor, he’ll be lucky if the enemy ends him quickly. Luckily, Nick sees an opportunity as he and his friends show potential for shadow magic and are trained to serve the Empire. But Nick doesn’t want to serve; he wants to rule.
To gain enough power, Nick will have to rise through the shadow circles. He begins his journey in the Yellow circle, the weakness and lowest class. If anyone suspects another rebellion, he is one order away from losing his head. But when a stranger named Volodimir is willing to help him grow, Nick is much too desperate to say no. Watch the weakness and smallest rebel fighter try to exceed everyone’s expectations—even his own.
That memorable setup means that even some familiar magic school storytelling boasts an edge of tension, as Nick must hide his identity, impress his teachers, and somehow compete with much more powerful students—in a tiered, color-coded ranking system, where Black is most powerful, he’s a meager Yellow, going up against cocky Purples. The magic is thoroughly imagined, the lessons exciting, and the camaraderie among the Yellows worth rooting for, though readers might find Shadow Magic’s dark and light aspects, keyed to emotions, and its masters’ tendency to take on secret apprentices, familiar even before the introduction of a “Professor Leia.”
Epic fantasy, of course, often builds upon old favorites, and Alexander invests fresh excitement into genre elements—a lost princess, magic-class explosions, much ado over blood lineage. Techniques like Shadow Walk, Shadow Glimpse, and the deadly Shadow Slash are fun and put to clever uses, and the question of whether Nick will eventually become a Shadow Assassin of the Black is exciting enough to fuel future entries. This entry is noticeably long, however, and often prosaic in the line-to-line telling. Still, the cast is winning, and the climax satisfying.
Takeaway: This magic-school series starter pits a young man in training to take down an empire from within.
Great for fans of: Garth Nix’s Sabriel, Trudi Canavan’s The Magicians’ Guild.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: A