by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 11+
Naturally, everything that can go wrong, does. What passes for a plan with these kids would be described, by almost any adult, as preposterous and dangerous. To start, they have to collect the last breath of a Giant in a place called Castle Death, which requires crossing a region haunted by deadly swamp creatures. Accompanied by a giant who's a dwarf compared to the one at Castle Death, some fanged furry friends, a talking raven and a collection of sprites and "hairy fairies" whose magical abilities are about equal to their foolishness, the kids travel into the unknown armed with powers they neither understand nor know how to control. Perhaps the only reason they get to Castle Death in one piece is that a sinister power is clearing the way for them, for dire reasons of its own.
Getting there is one thing; getting away is another – an adventure within an adventure in which a powerful Wizard king and an icy Warrior queen come face to face, each with an army of followers, and the only thing that can stop them from destroying each other is an enemy bent on destroying them all. Scariest of all is the reason the Kingwitch wants Wish in particular; if he gets her, it's all over.
It's a weird, warm, funny story featuring magical kids on the cusp of adulthood, people from different backgrounds and belief systems making friends, imperfect and even downright naughty youngsters trying as hard as they can to fight evil, hints about the power of forgiveness and of grief, some ridiculous adults, a hint of romance and a tantalizing puzzle about the narrator's identity. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cowell's unique style of illustrations, familiar to those who love her Hiccup the Viking books – deceptively crude and scratchy drawings that somehow express a lot of personality and feelings, and that sometimes made me laugh all by themselves. My only complaint is that some of the pages with very dark shading and reverse writing were hard to read – making Cressida Cowell's handwriting even more challenging to decipher than usual.
This is the second of four "Wizards of Once" books, following The Wizards of Once and followed by Knock Three Times and the upcoming (Nov. 17, 2020) release, Never and Forever. Cressida Cowell is also the creator of the 15-book "How to Train Your Dragon" series, which is very different in book form from the movie franchise. Among her other children's books are The Seasick Viking, One Too Many Tigers, There's No Such Thing as a Ghostie and several "Emily Brown" picture books.