Half Upon a Time
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 12+
The girl, who calls herself May, comes from a place with computers and cellphones, but of course, she has to be a princess; her T-shirt ("Punk Princess") says so. Where this Punk place might be, Jack hardly knows; May herself is pretty fuzzy about the idea that her grandmother, who has been snatched before her eyes, may actually be Snow White. The two, joined eventually by a real prince named Phillip, set out to save May's grandma, who (in Jack's world) was last seen at the climax of a war between the forces of good and the Wicked Queen. Also aiding their cause is the Wolf King, who can sometimes take human form, while their enemies include the Huntsman (who betrayed May's grandma) and a certain Red Hood, who travels under a cloak of invisibility.
The young trio's adventures are an action-packed tangle of the not-so-happily-ever-afters of the stories that May calls fairy tales, but that Jack and Phillip understand as history. Relics of that history live in a magical sack that Jack carries around, containing such things as a knife that will cut anything except living flesh, a magical bean that survived Jack's dad's adventure with a beanstalk, a witch's broom and a broken mirror that could become the most dangerous magical weapon in the world. Also, Jack finds himself the bearer of a sword whose last owner, deceased though he may be, keeps trying to get a message through to him. Could it be turning him toward evil? Could their entire quest be a trap? And how about the Wicked Queen's prophecy that one of May's suitors will betray her and the other will die?
For a mildly romantic, richly funny romp in the realm of make-believe, there's some heavy stuff in this book. The kids face some serious evil, ranging from a legitimately terrifying witch in a house made of poisoned candy to a fairy who wears her nickname, Malevolent, rather well. Jack, in particular, faces all kinds of mortal peril, including repeatedly falling from a great height as well as being eaten by a giant, cooked by a witch and tempted by a spiritual force that might be trying to turn him evil. Most challenging of all, there's this infuriating princess who can be so provoking, he might just give up the whole hero racket and let her rescue herself. Maybe. OK, not really....
This is the first book of a trilogy that continues with Twice Upon a Time and Once Upon the End. I've already bought all three of them, and for what it's worth, I love their cover art – though I suspect the material under their covers isn't quite as lightweight as the artwork suggests. Los Angeles-based James Riley is also the author of five "Story Thieves" books and four "Revenge of Magic" books, with a fifth (The Chosen One) scheduled for release in March 2021.