Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Wizards of Once

The Wizards of Once
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Before Britain knew it was Britain, its dark forest was divided between the tribe of Wizards, who consort with animals and magical creatures, and the Warriors who invaded from across the sea, dedicated to destroying all magic. Both sides of the conflict have one belief in common. They think the Witches – creatures of stupendous evil whose blood is an incurable poison – are extinct. Only the Wizard King's disobedient younger son, a reckless kid named Xar whose lack of magic is a matter of shame, thinks otherwise. One day, Xar sets out in the Badwoods to prove that he's right. But instead of catching a witch, he meets the Warrior Queen's daughter Wish – a frizzy-haired misfit with an eye patch and a limp – and takes her and her assistant bodyguard, Bodkin, as his prisoners.

Wish is in enough trouble as it is. She harbors a pet enchanted spoon (cuddly, but against the law). She also borrowed her mother's enchanted sword, which has the words "Once there were witches ... but I killed them" inscribed on its blade. It's bad enough that magic and iron shouldn't be able to exist together. Even worse, Wish has let Xar steal the blade from her, hoping to use a drop of what might be Witch blood at the tip of the blade to infect himself with evil magic. Xar just wants to be able to compete against his snotty older brother in a Wizard duel. But he risks far more than that by bringing the sword into the Wizard fort. Next thing Xar, Wish and Bodkin know, they have to escape the Wizard fort and return the sword to Queen Sychorax's dungeons before Xar's favorite sprite, the stupid but loyal Squeezjoos, pays the ultimate price.

That's just the beginning of what could turn out to be a long synopsis, but won't. This book is a daring, hilarious, kid-friendly adventure full of silly magic, touching family issues and endearing characters. The author's own scratchy illustrations are full of exuberant charm and express the characters' key qualities and feelings with remarkable rightness, considering their style – like something a kid Xar's or Wish's age might have scribbled in the margins of their spelling book. There's also a streak of menace in it. The evil of the Witches is serious stuff, and you might feel concerned by the imperfection of the kids who seem to be the world's best defense against it. There are obviously more adventures ahead for them, and more for us to learn about their quirky but dangerous world. It'll be fun.

This is the first book in the Wizards of Once series. Its sequels are Twice Magic, Knock Three Times and the upcoming Never and Forever, slated for release in November 2020. Cressida Cowell is a London based author who illustrates her own books, also including the 12 "How to Train Your Dragon" chapter books (quite unlike the movies based on them) and several associated works, plus about 16 children's picture books including The Seasick Viking, Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency and The Story of Tantrum O'Furrily.

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