fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce & Laura Geringer

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
 (2011) is an early installment in THE GUARDIANS OF CHILDHOOD, a planned series of books incorporating and re-tooling (or re-mythologizing) those familiar icons of childhood: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc. A long picture book, The Man in the Moon, begins the series and is the story of Tsar Lunar, who eventually becomes the Man in the Moon and sets himself as guardian of Earth’s children, seeking to protect them and their dreams from the villain Pitch who wields nightmares and an army of Fearlings.

The Battle of the Nightmare King, co-written by William Joyce and Laura Geringer, is the first novel in the series and as the title makes clear, is the story of Santa Claus. Though this is no Santa Claus we’ve seen before. The book begins with Pitch being freed from long imprisonment, then moves to a nearby village of Santoff Claussen, a magical place created by the wizard Ombric as a refuge for dreamers, inventors, scientists, artists, and the like. Ombric makes his home in a giant hollow tree (Big Root) in the center of the village and has set rings of wards around the village, including sentient trees, a Spirit of the Forest, a giant bear, and other defenses. None of them, however, are able to deter Pitch and it is only the sudden arrival of Nicholas St. North, greatest bandit of the Russias, that saves the village. Despite his unruly past, Nicholas finds himself enjoying the role of hero and decides to stay. Soon, he and Ombric, together with a young village girl named Katherine, must face down Pitch and begin to seek five magic talismans that might allow a final victory over the Nightmare King.

The idea of taking these oh-so-familiar childhood stories and placing them in a more serious, more epic fantasy setting of conflict and quest is a great premise. The Battle of the Nightmare King is written for middle-grade audiences, and within that context it certainly meets its potential. The pace moves briskly along with big action-packed scenes alternating with quieter ones: we move for instance from the freeing of Pitch to the more serene introduction of Ombric and the village to an eerie attack to a flashback story telling the back history of Pitch and Tsar Lunar to the introduction of North then to a battle. The action scenes are quick and energetic; Joyce certainly doesn’t dawdle in them, but that’s as probably should be for the target age.

The quieter scenes have a sparkle-in-the-eye kind of charm to them, as when Ombric speaks to a trio of insects or Nicholas St. North begins to invent things. You can see it as well in chapter titles such as “In Which a Great Number of Things Happen Very Swiftly” or “Not Really a Chapter at All — Just a Piece of the Puzzle.” Magic is a bit of a catchall, but again, for the target audience that isn’t really much of a complaint.

Ombric is a solidly drawn character — the nice old man kind of wizard. Katherine is the usual plucky girl — likable, suitably defiant without crossing the line, able to rise to the occasion when she needs to. By far the best character, as is fitting, is Nicholas St. North. Retooling Jolly Ol’ St. Nick as a brash, young, knife-throwing, pistol-shooting, Slavic Hacker-wielding (it’s a sword) bandit is ingenious. It’s unexpected, funny, original, and allows for the sort of change necessary to bring him closer to our core idea of the legend we know, which also keeps the reader wondering just how he’ll get to a point where we can at least see the kernel of the future mythology (not to mention wondering where the toys, reindeer, etc. come in, if at all).

Of course, this Nicholas has his own mythology already, as we see in our introduction to him:

“Later that night, in the raggedy camp of the wildest ruffians of the Russian plains, there sleeps a young bandit chief named Nicholas St. North. No one knew exactly how old he was…  but [he was] without argument the most daring young rascal in all the Russias. A hero he was not. But it was said he once defeated an entire regiment of cavalry with a bent steak knife — while he was eating. Impressive swordsmanship indeed, but not the kind of achievement that would make a mother proud…  Still, along with all these dubious qualities, there came a ready smile.”

That smile prepares us for the change he will go through, and while it happens relatively quickly and easily (much thanks to Katherine), it still evokes a smile and bit of warmth on the reader’s part.

Two other intriguing characters that we see only bits of are Tsar Lunar and a character known as the Spectral Boy through most of the novel. And I’ve got to add that North’s horse makes a decent side character himself.

Nicholas St. North is a quirky, energetic tale with a youthful twinkle in the eye. As mentioned, it’s more of a middle-grade and younger book (the mix of long picture books and novels is an intriguing idea as well). My ten-year-old zipped through it in two days after we began it aloud and thoroughly enjoyed it. He’s already looking forward to the next installment. My guess is he’s good for a few more years until he gets too old for it. Well recommended for children 12 and under.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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