Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone (2016)
When a book gets compared to the work of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m not sure whether to read it or not. On the one hand, there’s the hope that the reading experience will evoke the brilliant qualities of my all-time favorite fantasy author. On the other, there’s the dread that the latter-day work will be derivative, uninspired, or otherwise lackluster, and that the disappointment will simply increase the pain of what I’m missing.
Fortunately, although The Evil Wizard Smallbone does have some scenes and motifs that could have been lifted from a DWJ novel, Sherman works with them in a way that feels fresh and original. When Nick Reynaud, a runaway from an abusive home, stumbles across the “Evil Wizard Bookshop” in the picture-perfect Maine town of Smallbone Cove, he at first wants to stay just one night and move on. But he soon finds out that “evil wizard” is not just a cute name, the bookshop is truly magical, and the animals and humans of the town are not all they seem. He also finds that he himself might have some abilities and potential that his relatives and teachers have overlooked, and that might help to save Smallbone Cove itself.
Though not as mind-stretching or inventive as the best of Diana Wynne Jones, this was an entertaining story with warmth and heart, memorable characters, a fantastic setting (who wouldn’t want to live in a magical bookshop?) and a satisfying conclusion. Nick’s inner and outer journey, in which magic is a counterpart to emotional growth, is sensitively portrayed without being heavily didactic. Unlike lesser fantasy works that just throw magic around like firecrackers, leaving nothing behind, there’s real substance here, for readers both young and old.
Much as I enjoyed Smallbone, there was something about its construction and pacing that bothered me. I think it has to do with the fact that although the bulk of the story belongs to Nick, it kept getting interrupted with other points of view — especially at the beginning, which had me quite confused for a while. Even though these parts were well done in themselves, they somehow felt like a distraction; they were not given enough weight to become a true second/third/fourth story thread, but pulled us away from Nick’s narrative just as I wanted it to be filled out more.
However, this was in the end a minor drawback for me, and it might not bother you at all. If middle grade fantasy is your cup of tea, do read The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and be sure to let me know what you thought. (It’s a perfect choice for both Witch Week and the Reading New England challenge, too!)