Pat Wrede (pronounced "reedy") set her debut novel in the world of Lyra, which would go on to figure in four more books, all of which are stand-alone stories linked by their world and its history. There is a lot about Shadow Magic that fans of romantic, heroic quest fantasy will find appealing, though the book is very rough around the edges, with characters too arch and a plot that rarely steps outside the path of formula. That's typical for a first novel, it's true, though I'll happily admit the book has a naive charm. It should be noted straight away that Wrede gave Shadow Magic a thorough clean-up and revision for its inclusion in the 1997 omnibus edition Shadows over Lyra. So perhaps that version deserves to have the rating notched upwards. This review applies to the 1982 Ace original.
Short version: Alethia is the eldest daughter of Lord Bracor, who governs the fortress and trading town of Brenn on the western edge of the nation of Alkyra. Alkyra is threatened by an imminent invasion by the baddies in Lithra to the northwest, whose wizards have awakened the Shadow-Born, who, as you might have guessed by their name, belong to the epic fantasy character class "Evil Badasses You Don't Mess With". When agents of the Lithmern infiltrate Brenn and kidnap Alethia, the act of rescuing her ends up involving three magical races long thought to be mythical: the forest-dwelling Wyrds; powerful magic-wielders the Shee, who live in the frozen north; and the aquatic Neira, of whom we see way too little.
Quickly rescued by the Wyrds, Alethia and her human companions are taken north and given refuge among the Shee. There, Alethia begins training in her natural magic powers, which are clearly of great potential. Meanwhile, the Lithmern invasion of Alkyra is coming closer. Can the armies of Brenn and their few allies head the invasion off at the pass? (Literally, gang — there's a mountain pass.) Can Brenn persuade the other squabbling and opportunistic Alkyran council members of the threat to the nation? Will Alethia come into her full magic powers in time to be of any help?
This isn't a bad little adventure, and I really liked Alethia, though she has her own character class ("Gutsy Independent-Minded Young Heroine") that she fits agreeably. But there are holes in the plot that only magic could patch over. So many ideas are established, then never taken to their logical ends. If the Lithmern went to all the trouble to try abducting Alethia before their invasion, then that obviously means they knew, somehow, of Alethia's heritage and latent magical might and the threat it poses even before she or anyone else did. Our heroes discuss this, but never actually pursue the issue of how they knew. And if the Lithmern knew this incredibly important fact about our heroine, what else might they know that the good guys don't? That's a potentially explosive plot wrinkle that could have taken the whole story up a notch. But Wrede just doesn't follow through. In another scene, we discover that the Shadow-Born, who can influence minds at a great distance, have enthralled one of the Shee high ministers himself. The fellow is exposed and hauled off to the dungeons...and then everyone goes about their business, without it occurring to our heroes to see if anyone else among the Shee has been similarly compromised.
It's possible Wrede has fixed some of this lackadaisical plotting in the revision. But there's still the matter of the Lithmern themselves being rather faceless villains. (That sentence is a pun, but I couldn't really get around it, so live with it.) We really don't know what motivates them, other than routine evil evilness. They seem to have no reason to invade Alkyra other than that they're stock fantasy bad guys who invade countries where the good guys live, because...what else would they do? Form an economy? A culture? The few Lithmern we meet are so arch you could use them to hold up a Roman aqueduct. The leader of the band who kidnaps Alethia does things like throwing his head back when he laughs. Presumably his arms are akimbo at the time, though Wrede isn't specific. He taunts Alethia with "So, you have spirit! I like that." But then he blows it by forgetting to call her "my proud beauty." I tell you, being an arch-villain is all about style points. It ain't for amateurs.
Am I snarking on this material too much? Suffice it to say that some of Shadow Magic's cheesier elements — isn't it handy how centuries-lost magic items always have a convenient habit of turning up in caves? — add to its quaint and simple appeal. But this debut novel is far from Wrede's best, which I imagine she'd be the first to tell you. As it is, it survives as a curio for fans of her later work, who might like to see how she started on the long road towards earning her fantasy crown.