What is it about Maine? Stephen King and John Connolly both write terrifying horror stories set there, and Delia Sherman places The Evil Wizard Smallbone, a middle-grade fantasy published in 2016, in Maine in the winter. That state must have a lot of magical juice.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone not only shares the horror of a Maine winter, it’s got an evil wizard, shape-shifting coyote-bikers, a small and somewhat magical town called Smallbone Cove whose residents have forgotten their own strange history to their peril, and a scrappy boy named Nick who stumbles into a magical bookstore and becomes ensnared by the Evil Wizard Smallbone.
The book is delightful. It’s atmospheric, pretty fast-paced and filled with interesting characters. Nick, the orphaned young hero, has run away from his abusive uncle and bullying cousin Jerry. Lost in the snow-covered woods, Nick is drawn to a lighted house that is also a bookshop. When the eccentric owner takes him in, Nick is willing to do chores for a day to pay for a meal and a warm place to sleep. Instead, he finds himself trapped on the property and “apprenticed” to the Evil Wizard Smallbone. To Nick’s shock, the wizard is an actual wizard, and the bookshop is filled with magical books.
Meanwhile, the coyote-biker pack is besieging the tiny idyllic town of Smallbone Cove (where everyone’s last name is Smallbone). The townspeople are starting to grumble; the magical wards the surround the town are faltering and they blame the wizard, while refusing to acknowledge that they have not been conducting the quarterly rituals that they agreed to. Dinah, daughter of the unofficial mayor of Smallbone Cove, accidentally discovers the coyote-pack’s magic. Dinah is a curious, methodical girl who uses the scientific method and wants to be a scientist, even though she knows she will never step foot over the town limits and never go into the world because that is part of the agreement with the wizard.
Nick, Dinah, and a few other young people drive the action in this story. About the first third of The Evil Wizard Smallbone is Nick secretly learning magic from the books, and learning about himself in the process. The coyote-pack and their white wolf leader are drawing closer and closer, though, threatening the town, the Evil Wizard Smallbone, and Nick himself.
Sherman’s prose is smooth and deceptively simple. She knows her age group; she does not write down to her audience, but there is a clarity to the prose and a sense of directness. She makes a lot of fun of the weather, especially winter, at one point saying that February is the longest month in Maine, even though it has the fewest days. Here’s what she has to say about March:
Anybody who can get through March without breaking a glass, a friendship, a secret, a promise, or somebody’s nose is either a saint or on vacation in Florida.
Like most “wizard’s apprentice” stories, Nick must come to some realizations about himself before he can wield the power he has. The story itself is never preachy, even if some of the magical books are:
“Oh, no you don’t. Am I called 101 Steps to the Animal You, Except the Ones You Don’t Feel Like Taking? I don’t think so. This test is Step 1. If you don’t complete it, you don’t take Step 2. I knew you didn’t really want to do this.”
Nick is a well-drawn character who sometimes does bad things for reasons we can understand. The Evil Wizard Smallbone is mysterious and confusing. Is he really evil? Is he mean? Does he treat Nick differently from how he treated his other apprentices? What happened to his other apprentices, anyway? The conundrum of the wizard is well-delivered, with clues that build up slowly until the reveal. And speaking of animals, all the animals in this book are well-depicted and good fun.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone is a brisk, entertaining, funny middle-grade read. The magical system seems based on middle-European folklore and British Isles folklore, and it is not heavy-handed. While we older folks who have read a lot of fantasy will see the plot points and twists coming up, I do not think most ten-to-fourteen-year-olds are going to find this book predictable.
Nick is a sympathetic main character who is his own worst enemy. We root for him to learn what he has to learn, and prevail. The Evil Wizard Smallbone is filled with funny moments. The danger posed by the coyote pack is real, but the book never gets disturbing, gory or too scary. For parents who like to read what their children are reading, you’ll enjoy this one too, and for kids, it’s a winter — I mean winner. A winner.