Sunday, December 27, 2020

Twice Upon a Time

Twice Upon a Time
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 12+

The cover art for this book really grabbed me – the "punk princess" in T-shirt and jeans, going "eek" and evidently still not entirely reconciled to being in the world where fairy tales are real; the youth crossing swords with a pirate, laughing nervously as if to say, "Am I really doing this?" It totally sells the side of this book that's about sarcastic, modern teenagers thrust into heroic roles they don't buy into, in a world of magic that totally doesn't make their eyes dance with wonder. (Roll, more like.)

The story behind the cover has all these elements in it, but it runs deeper than you'd expect. Jack, the 13th of that name, son of the Giant Killer, isn't meant to be a hero, and May still hasn't figured out what she's doing in fairy-tale land after her supposed grandmother turns out to be the Wicked Queen. When she finds out the real-life story that she belongs to, and when he is forced to face his role in it all, they both have heavy issues to work on and fateful decisions to make. True love, heroic deeds and happily-ever-after may not be in store for them, no matter how they feel about each other.

As Jack, May and pure-of-heart Prince Phillip continue their adventures, they have only a couple days to save the entire fairy kingdom from destruction. The Wicked Queen has unleashed a dragon attack, combined with a curse of sleepiness straight out of Sleeping Beauty. To get help from the one fairy queen who hasn't been affected, they must travel to the Land of Never, where an insolent brat named King Pan rules over a tribe of pudgy adults who believe they stopped aging as children. Also under his control are a shipful of harmless pirates and a group of silly mermaids – all of whom would instantly became dangerous if released from Pan's thrall. And what's under the sea isn't the stuff of a Disney musical, but a merman kingdom poised on the edge of a boning knife, primed to bring a war of annihilation against the human race on the slightest provocation. To accomplish their task, the trio has no choice but to risk exactly that.

This book strikes some dark notes, emotionally. It has loads of danger and action. It forces its heroes and heroines to grapple with tough moral choices and, particularly in Jack's case, to offer huge sacrifices. It isn't easy on them at all. Yet through all of this, its reshaping of familiar folk-stories is full of lightness, fun and goofiness, well-seasoned with laugh-out-loud moments like:
A few more of the smelliest, dirtiest, and beardiest men May had ever seen approached the net. Those men with eyes glared meanly at them. Those missing eyes just eye-patched them, but equally as meanly.
This is the second book in the "Half Upon a Time" trilogy, between Half Upon a Time and Once Upon the End. James Riley is also the author of five "Story Thieves" books and going on five "Revenge of Magic" books.

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