The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell
What caught my attention with The Wizards of Once (2017) was the opening paragraph, which describes the forests of ancient Britain thusly:
These were forests darker than you would believe possible, darker than inkspots, darker than midnight, darker than space itself, and as twisted and as tangled as a Witch’s heart.
Who wouldn’t want to read a story set in such a place? The hook continues with an introduction to the two main characters: a boy from a wizard tribe with no magic, and a girl from a warrior tribe with a banned magical object. The boy Xar is desperate for magic, and the girl Wish is just as determined to keep hers a secret.
Naturally their paths will cross, and it should come as no surprise to learn that because their respective tribes have been at war for so long, they don’t exactly get off on the right foot.
As book premises go, that’s pretty rock-solid! How they meet each other and what they do afterwards comprises the meat of the story, and Cressida Cowell tells it all in her chatty narrative voice, which keeps things light and casual even when things get rather dark and scary.
I’ll admit I’ve never read any of her HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON series, though I’ve flicked through them a few times and am familiar with Cowell’s trademark writing style. Admittedly, the comedic tone took a while to get used to, and a part of me wonders if the story would have been more effective without it, but it’ll certainly appeal to kids (who after all, are the intended audience).
As our main characters, Xar and Wish are amusing and relatable, though Xar’s arrogance and recklessness can get a little grating. Yes, he’s the son of a powerful wizard who is sensitive about not having magic, and of course he has to start off as selfish if he’s to grow into a better person, but I still preferred Wish, who has her own share of flaws but still manages to be introspective and open-minded. She helps him out in ways he doesn’t entirely deserve at this point, so let’s hope the character development kicks in with the second book Twice Magic.
Members of the supporting cast are less strong than the protagonists, made up of the typical archetypes you find in these kinds of fantasy stories: the worrisome mentor, the cowardly sidekick, the sycophantic follower and so on — but Cowell’s distinctive illustrations help bring them to life.
The Wizards of Once is a story about trying to live up to your parents’ expectations, figuring out your own identity, and learning that tradition and destiny aren’t always correct. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for Xar and Wish…
The HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON series books are in constant turnover at the used bookstore where I help out. I haven’t seen this book in there, but now I’ll start looking.