November 26, 2018

Of Shadows, Dreams & Flames | Shadow Magic Series Review + An Interview with Joshua Khan

I don’t read nearly as much middle grade as Macky does, but I do (try to) listen when he puts a particular series on my radar - just like he did for the Shadow Magic trilogy. Shadow Magic, the first novel and the only one I’ll talk about in detail, introduces readers to two characters: Thorn and Lilith “Lily” Shadow. Thorn is an outlaw’s son who winds up captured and sold as a slave to Tyburn, the executioner of Castle Gloom… which is Lily’s familial home. Lily is the last surviving member of House Shadow, heir to the throne and fighting off enemies on all sides… even though as a female, she cannot practice magic. When the two of them meet, it starts them off on an unexpected adventure filled with friendship, magic and a gigantic bat named Hades. (Yes, you read that right.) The next two books continue telling readers all about Thorn and Lily as their circumstances change and they’re forced to confront new enemies (and go to new places), and that’s all I’ll say about them. What I will say about all three books in the series, my friends, is that it is quite fun to read! Joshua Khan’s world is so immersive, his characters are sassy and memorable and lovable, and his plots are very compelling. It’s middle grade done well, and the kind of middle grade that I, as a reader, personally enjoy, and I found the entire trilogy to be such a satisfying reading experience. I’m a little sad that the trilogy is complete, because I totally would have read more about Lily, Thorn and Hades, but it’s definitely a series I’d consider worth the read!

Shadow Magic / Dream Magic / Burning Magic by Joshua Khan
Series: Shadow Magic #1-3 | Check out Macky's review of Burning Magic!
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion | Publication Dates: April 12, 2016 / Apri l1, 2017 / April 10, 2018

Macky actually reached out to Joshua Khan for an interview (which is really exciting!) I'm including the text of his email exchange with Joshua below, but fair warning -- if you have yet to read the series, do that first, then come back and check out this interview! Thanks to Joshua for taking the time to answer all of Macky's burning questions, and apologies to both gentlemen for the wee bit of editing I did. (You can find Joshua online on Twitter or Facebook!)

photo source
Hi Joshua, 

Thank you once again for this opportunity to interview you about the Shadow Magic book series. Just to go off the beaten path of the usual author interviews we have on the blog, I am planning to publish this entire letter to you (with your answers to the interview questions) and maybe insert a side comment or two afterwards. 

Don’t know if you are going to read this and answer questions or read my non-spoiler review of Burning Magic here (via ye auld hyperlink) first, but ideally, this little back and forth should hopefully encapsulate the larger, more important things that matter to me from your books while shedding light on some very fun detailed stuff. 

So - SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!! You have been warned in reverse River Song fashion. 

On the Journey of Lily and Thorn

Macky: It is, to me, story craftsmanship of the highest order when a writer is able to pin down a character so well that they can take the fundamental issues of that character and just keep exploring along those lines, bringing them to the same decision point each time and seeing if, under even greater pressure and stakes from the last time, they will be true to themselves or veer further away from who they were meant to be. In every book, Lily and Thorn find themselves choosing to defy norms and tradition for the sake of the greater good, gambling on high stakes with their very lives. Did you always foresee them to be such heroes? Also, was it hard plotting the books so that each time they get into just the right kind of trouble that forces them to find strength they didn’t know was even available to them?

Joshua Khan: I love epic, high fantasy (The Hobbit is my favourite book of all time), so I wanted SM (Alexa's Note: Shadow Magic, just in case you couldn't guess) to have that similar atmosphere and feel. Key to that was the ‘accidental hero’. Lily and Thorn have to rise to their challenges, and discover strengths they didn’t know they had. I didn’t know their strengths either, not when I started. I knew Lily wanted to save her kingdom, and Thorn was looking for his father, but I knew there were great and sinister forces in their way. Their characters revealed themselves only slowly and with many rewrites, each time polishing their fundamental natures. Thorn’s is simply this: he knows right from wrong and ACTS. He doesn’t think too hard, or view matters from different angles or even worry about the consequences. He does the right thing, regardless of the danger. He is foolhardy, but brave and often gets in over his head. So, when he had a problem, I knew how he would deal with it. BUT what was hard was how he managed the consequences of his actions, like saving K’leef at the end of SM, and the nomad women in BM.

Lily was based on Queen Elizabeth the First, and Malala Yousafzai and their greatest characteristic is their defiance against society. They are the ultimate rebels, which is ironic as Lily is the ruler of her country. Lily wants justice, which is subtly different from the simple good/bad viewpoint of Thorn. My biggest idea behind Lily was to show a powerful female character without her having to be a badass warrior woman. That has become the biggest cliché in fantasy, that to be ‘strong woman’, she needs to kick ass. Lily wants to do right by her people. She bears the legacy of her name and it is heavy. She is the last of House Shadow and that is everything to her.

That said, these attributes only came to the fore after many rewrites! But once established in SM, they gave me a strong sense of the characters, making it easy to develop more stories. I knew their strengths, so the second and third books were about undermining them, and challenging them to develop further, and in different ways.

But I cannot emphasize the rewriting process enough!

On Gehenna and the World of the Six Princes

Macky: So, our story takes place in a fantasy universe where six powerful princes warred terribly and with the gifts they had (each keyed to one of the four elements, as well as light and shadow) carved up the land among themselves and forged kingdoms in their images. It’s so historically sound in a whimsical way that I can’t help but wonder how much engineering went into creating this 'global' society. Did it come fully formed for the most part or was there a lot of grueling work setting the right historical precedents that would put our heroes in the crazy situations they found themselves in? I mean, up until book three, we all thought the six princes were just that, and then suddenly, we find out there was a high queen? Madness! How’d you do it!?

Joshua Khan: I ALWAYS knew about the High Queen. In a very, very, VERY early draft of SM, Lily finds out about her. The first draft had Lily, Thorn and K’leef go to the Shardlands, but I quickly realized that it was way too big a story for one book, so I decided to focus on one kingdom in immense detail instead of writing a typical ‘fantasy quest’. The encounter between Lily and Bitter Prince is actually a scene I wrote in 2013! But, knowing there was a High Queen, I then knew which way the series would go, even though at that point I didn’t even have a trilogy!

However, it is all world-building. You don’t see the foundations, but they make the structure more whole and sound. It is able to withstand much more, because you’ve built deep. After all, you now understand why the Six Princes banned women from using magic! It all makes sense and was not some arbitrary choice with no logic behind it. Rules, even bizarre ones, must have some foundation in reason.

Okay, the problem is magic. Too often, it is the convenient "get out" clause for a tricky situation. I needed a system, so each branch of magic had a very strong concept behind it. Also, what I don’t like about most fantasy novels is the wizards are the helpful advisors, while the warriors are the main heroes. I wanted to build a world defined by the great sorcerers. After all, you can alter reality! Use that power!

But, as shown when Lily loses control of her own magic in DM, I wanted to show what happens when you are powerful, but not wise. The world was almost destroyed by the Six Princes, and the Shardlands show what they did to each other. That rivalry is still played out by their descendants, which is, if you think about it, rather tragic. Don’t we see that in our world? Our hatred for others which are down to petty differences? Be it colour, religion, whatever. So, despite Lily’s caring, thoughtful natures, she is still blind, for example, in her attitude towards House Solar and her unwillingness to admit the greatness of House Djinn.

Macky: This reminds me of the brief but meaningful conversation we had in the comments section for Shadow Magic on Goodreads. Gehenna. Castle Gloom. Nahas. The Shardlands. These places… these maps and landscapes… they’re so rich. You mentioned that, at least for Shadow Magic, Castle Gloom was like it’s own character in the story. What was it like putting all the minute details into these places? I mean, on their own, they are things of wonder but the details themselves lend to the plot development in such fun and elegant ways!

Joshua Khan: Actually, I have my editor, the very awesome Stephanie Lurie, for that. The first draft of SM was shorter than the final published version. She asked to find out more about Castle Gloom and Gehenna, which I was more than happy to oblige. And one of the little touches that added depth to the whole series was Thorn’s grandpa and his stupid sayings. It makes you feel there are people, alive, vivid, and yet unseen. It subconsciously expands the world. And it all needed to feel authentic, so Castle Gloom just grew and grew until it was it’s own character. Homes are like that.

Putting it together was just fun! I live near Knight’s Hill, there’s a Herne Hill and Gypsy Hill nearby too. EVERYWHERE is named after something. Bad fantasy just jumbles some syllables together to make it sound exotic. That is a shallow way to world-build. Since each kingdom has a strong concept, I used that as the basis for the place and character names. Of course there are exceptions, otherwise it feels too monotonous. Like Mary, that name just worked, so it stayed. Don’t be too clever just to be clever. My agent Sarah Davies talked about this ages ago. Add enough spice to keep the story tasty (we were talking about cooking and writing!) but if you overdo it you only make the reader sick, and stop them from reading on.

Macky: That final prophecy though, and the wrongs done against the High Queen now being righted, starting with Kleef and Lily, and no doubt, very soon, the other parts of the known world as well - it’s both a hard close and yet totally a wide open space for more storytelling. We see the beginnings of the “prophecy” unfold in these three books. But how did you come up with it? Did you know from book one that there was this hidden layer from ages past that you knew Lily would play a key role in?

Joshua Khan: It wasn’t so much a prophecy, but a wish of half the world’s population. In the end, Lily’s story is about women gaining equality. I use the magic system as a mirror of our own society, be in business or politics. That was established in book one, and I was just writing it out. I love the idea that her actions have had unsuspected repercussions, one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Sultanate of Fire in book three.

Macky: And lastly, if you were given the chance to write more, what would the next three books be like for Lily and Thorn? We haven’t seen Herne’s forest, Seaside with the “Coral’s”, what’s left of Prince Typhoon’s roost, and even the Solar’s home turf. Have you dreamed up or seen where they were to go? A story as strong as this with characters that are just as strong seems to have a life on its own; ideas and visions of what happens to these characters could very well assault you from time to time. Does it work that way for you at all or do you sort of just work organically? Personally, I just want more of this world and cannot get enough of our heroes so I can’t help but wonder, what else do you have on these guys?

Joshua Khan: Hmm, I was in a serious dilemma over this. The ending of book three was exactly what I wanted, but of course there were other stories in mind. Thorn, when he is dying in the Shardlands, is sad he never got to show Lily Herne’s Forest and there were a few issues unresolved in Gehenna regarding House Tenebrae, rivals to the Shadows.

But nevertheless, a trilogy is a fine, fine thing!

On Style

Macky: I noticed a lot of allusions to fairy tales (ones we are familiar with in the real world) that add a sort of alternate universe canon that mirrors our own. Was that intentional? Love the Shakespeare quotes at the start of the books too, by the way. Was that also by design? Easter eggs perhaps, if fans just happen to love Shakespeare?

I love Shakespeare AND SM is basically the plot of Hamlet! Come on, ghost of the father, the treacherous uncle, the betrayal by the servants and even travelling players. If you are going to rip off someone, might as will rip off the best! I’m surprised no one really saw it. Then, we have bits of Macbeth, Richard the Third and Julius Caesar sprinkled through the other two books.

The fairy tale references were a bit of a running joke, that Lily’s family are the basis of the fairy tale villains. I like the idea that the world of the SM series is our ancient, ancient past, so far back it’s almost the future, as all is cyclic.

Just a bit more on Lily and Thorn

Macky: They are such strong characters with just the right kind of self-awareness to string readers along, but also leave room for some clear growth comparing them from who they were and who they become at the end of the trilogy. How did you even dream these two up and the amazing dynamic they share? Also, in your personal opinion, how hard do you ship these two (as the young‘uns say today of characters they desperately need to end up together)? It’s pretty clear you have achieved the very dramatic ending you set out to do, what with Lily setting off to carve out a path larger than her destiny as ruler of Gehenna, Thorn in tow and swearing she could never get rid of him. It’s not happily ever after, but it almost feels that the audience is on the outside looking in at what these two really feel for each other, almost like we are just looking at the very large tip of a really big iceberg. Was that by design as well?

Joshua Khan: Their relationship grew and grew, it was almost painful to watch them get to the edge of admitting their feelings to each other, but holding back. I wrote a few different times when one or the other says ‘I love you’, then deleted them. You know they do, you know they know they do. The last scene was the best way to demonstrate their feelings for each other. Saying ‘I love you’, was pitifully weak in comparison. And remember, they are still children/young teens. Some emotions, though there, are too powerful to be understood for them, at that point in their lives.

What is not said is more powerful than what is. Lily goes right out and asks Thorn why he does what he does, and he says “Because I serve you, Lily.”

We know what he’s really saying, and so does Lily.

And Finally, Hades

Macky: So… I cannot think of anyone riding a bat in recent fiction, though that may be more at testament to how little fiction I have actually read. But Hades is the fiercest, scariest most terrifying sweetheart this side of Gehenna and the known world. Did you always mean for him to be so endearing even if there is not one iota of overt cuteness and lovableness to him in the story? If anything, he is the last thing you wanna see at night (and if you happen to be a sheep or camel or any kind of livestock, the last thing you ever see period). How did you come up with such a brilliant character that has such a real & relatable dynamic to Thorn? I have seen dragon riders have blander relationships with their giant beasts. How did you come across making Hades (what a name!) so special?

Joshua Khan: You nailed it, bland dragon riders. If I was a city-wrecking dragon, I’d be so embarrassed being used as a pony, which is what they’ve become nowadays. Early on, I knew I wanted to write an ‘anti-fantasy’ fantasy, so dragons were out. So, with SM, I wanted a monster, plain and simple. And if you’ve in a kingdom of darkness, you’re just going to have bats, aren’t you?

The name was an easy one. I needed him to be lord of the underworld. Personality-wise, I realized the more horrible he was, the more fun he was to write, and (thankfully) read about! But Hades is utterly loyal to Thorn, and that makes him so special. What was so satisfying is that when we sent SM out to publishers, every single one came back with ‘I love Hades’. But the trick is to hold him back. It would have been too easy to have him lurking everywhere, hence me getting rid of him for half of BM, and his constant need to rest up, he is old after all! The less I used him, the more special he became.

Hades was just insanely fun to write. He and Thorn are this bickering couple that totally depend on each other, but each thinks he’s the one in charge. My favorite scene was when they’re trying to save Gabriel in DM when he falls out of the cloud ship.

Macky: Well, that’s as geeky and as detailed as I can get these questions. Feel free to just give brief answers where you feel like it and talk about absolutely anything else you want to. I would read about Thorn and Lily at the market buying ingredients for stew if that’s all I can get post-Burning Magic. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to get this opportunity to even ask you these questions. Meanwhile, I shall look for books along the lines of “how to petition publishers to get authors to write even more books in a series” because I truly believe the world and characters of Shadow Magic are fresh, revolutionary and make the story a modern classic.

Hey, ‘A modern classic’? You’re too kind!

With much gratitude (to Joshua) for writing this,
Macky (and Alexa)


  1. Ohh, these sound wonderful! And, ah, magical, for lack of a better word. I am going to look into this trilogy as a potential gift for my younger cousins. They sound right up her alley. Great interview! I am cackling at the beginning when you say, "You have been warned in reverse River Song fashion." and 100% missing her on Doctor Who right now. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Eee, stunning promo post love :D So glad you gave these books a try. <3 I do read a bunch of middle grade books, and those I read are mostly all perfection, ahhh :D I have read MG that is better than a lot of YA, haha. <3 These books looks so awesome. Thrilled that you loved them :)


Thanks for leaving a comment! I love seeing what you have to say, and will try to reply (here or on Twitter) as soon as I can :)