Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Evil Wizard Smallbone

The Evil Wizard Smallbone
by Delia Sherman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nick, on the run from an abusive uncle and a cousin who likes to beat on him, is pursued through the Maine woods by a pack of coyotes. At the end of his strength, he finds himself on the doorstep of the Evil Wizard Bookstore, whose frizzy-bearded, dented-tophat-wearing proprietor introduces himself as the Evil Wizard Smallbone. Smallbone agrees to take Nick on as an apprentice - an arrangement from the boy is determined to escape. But he soon learns there is a spell keeping him from running away, and if he doesn't do his chores to the wizard's satisfaction, he really might get turned into a spider - or something worse.

Between cooking meals, cleaning the shop, and doing farm chores, Nick starts learning a bit of magic - thanks, in large part, to the bookstore having a will of its own, and providing him with weirdly interactive books. He also learns the people of the nearby village of Smallbone Cove are bound with the wizard in a contract going back more than 300 years. They cannot leave the town limits, but trouble cannot enter to spoil their peace. Only now, the boundaries are starting to fail, and an enemy wizard - a loup garou (French-style werewolf) called Fidelou - wants to take it over and ruin it with his shape-changing biker gang / coyote pack. It will take the combined powers of the evil wizard and his reluctant apprentice to restore the sentinels that anchor the boundaries, keeping Fidelou and his coyotes out.

Just when Nick has started to care about saving the village, he recognizes his Uncle Gabe and Cousin Jerry as the newest members of Fidelou's gang. Worse, they recognize him, and the magical rules giving them a chance to "rescue" Nick from the Evil Wizard Smallbone may be just the opening Fidelou needs to force a final, decisive confrontation on his own turf, while the fate of Smallbone Cove dangles in jeopardy. Together with a couple of former apprentices rescued from animal transformations, Nick gets to witness an awesome duel between two evil wizards, knowing that the difference between them in the degree of evil makes the outcome crucial. But now that he's a wizard himself, he can do more than stand by and watch.

This is a wonderfully inventive book, featuring a home-school route to learning magic, as an alternative to a school like Hogwarts. It is full of gut-shaking humor, hair-raising thrills, spookiness, charm, and quirky but believable magical details. It has characters, relationships, and settings that come alive in the reader's imagination with the heft of a believable reality, and that linger in the heart as dear friends. It has a basic protection spell whose incantation made me giggle, a book with a real personality, and a clever reference to one of my favorite books about young wizards. Its dialogue snaps, its snapshot of small-town politics rings true (with or without shape-changing magic being involved), and its closing lines were one of several passages that made me laugh aloud. I wasn't just satisfied with this book. I loved it.

This book by the author of Changeling is scheduled for U.S. release Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made available through Netgalley dot com.

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