The Language of Spells by Garret WeyrThe Language of Spells by Garret WeyrThe Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells (2018), by Garret Weyr, has a certain whimsical charm to it at times, and the warm relationship at its core is a definite plus, but it has a good number of issues that mar the reading experience, though probably less so for a younger audience.

The dragon Grisha is born in the Black Forest in a world where magic is on the wane. After a few decades of maturation (though still young in dragon terms), he’s enchanted by a sorcerer who turns him into a teapot. He lives his life in that trapped stage for many more decades, through both World Wars. Eventually he ends up in Vienna, kept like the few other remaining dragons, under tight surveillance by the bureaucracy. It is there he meets and bonds with eleven-year-old Maggie. Together the two decided to go on a quest to find and free a large group of dragons rumored to have gone missing.

The relationship between Maggie and Grisha is the best part of The Language of Spells, warmly, gently endearing with more than a whiff of melancholy to it thanks to both having suffered loss in their lives — Maggie’s mother died when she was very young and Grisha, in combination to his lost decades, has his own absences to grieve.

Also a positive is the parallels that run between the storyline here and real-life events of WWII and afterward, with refugees, forced detention, and the like. Weyr offers up some serious questions about how good people turn away from evil, what it means to lose one’s openness to wonder, the impact of power on an individual, sacrifice, and more.

Finally, there are some lovely moments of whimsy and magic here, such as the aforementioned transformation of Grisha into a teapot, and a few other such details.

On the down side, there are a lot of problems with the novel. The opening 60 or so pages, pre-Vienna, are a lot of at first exposition and then a lot that didn’t really feel particularly necessary. The opening isn’t helped by a bit of a twee narrative voice that had me considering giving up for the first 10 or 12 pages or so (that style did get dropped). I’d have recommended cutting it in half at least if not simply dropping it altogether. Later other parts seem to go by too quickly or conversely, we spend a little too long on some scenes. Some scenes feel contrived and the quest is relatively passive and repetitive.

The world-building is quite thin; I never really understood how dragons fit into this world. Even in little pragmatic details like how they hang around in a hotel bar — are they on all fours? Using human chairs? And there’s a fair amount of hand-waving things away.

And lastly, I wish those parallels between real world events would have been made a bit more pointed. As it is, it’s hard to imagine most young readers picking up on them, though I’d certainly hope an adult who reads it with their child would use it as a springboard for conversation.

In many ways, The Language of Spells has more negatives than positives, which would lead one would think to a clear “do not recommend” review. But honestly, I so enjoyed the camaraderie between the two protagonists so much that I’m going to give it a “recommend with major reservations,” with an additional caveat that my complaints will probably matter much less to younger readers, which makes me feel more comfortable with the recommendation.

Published June 26, 2018. Grisha is a dragon in a world that’s forgotten how to see him. Maggie is a unusual child who thinks she’s perfectly ordinary. They’re an unlikely duo—but magic, like friendship, is funny. Sometimes it chooses those who might not look so likely. And magic has chosen Grisha and Maggie to solve the darkest mystery in Vienna. Decades ago, when World War II broke out, someone decided that there were too many dragons for all of them to be free. As they investigate, Grisha and Maggie ask the question everyone’s forgotten: Where have the missing dragons gone? And is there a way to save them? At once richly magical and tragically historical, The Language of Spells is a novel full of adventure about remembering old stories, forging new ones, and the transformative power of friendship.


  • 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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