It’s no secret that I love everything T. Kingfisher writes, whether it’s her fairy tale retellings or the massive graphic novel Digger she published as Ursula Vernon. You can always expect lovable heroes with a solid moral compass, charming stories, and practical characters. The same goes for this little book aimed at a younger audience.
by T. Kingfisher
Published by: Red Wombat Studio, 2019
Ebook: 185 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First line: Oliver was a very minor mage.
Oliver was a very minor mage. His familiar reminded him of this several times a day.
He only knew three spells, and one of them was to control his allergy to armadillo dander. His attempts to summon elementals resulted in nosebleeds, and there is nothing more embarrassing than having your elemental leave the circle to get you a tissue, pat you comfortingly, and then disappear in a puff of magic. The armadillo had about wet himself laughing.
He was a very minor mage.
Unfortunately, he was all they had.
Oliver is the resident mage of a small farming village – ever since the old mage died, after teaching Oliver everything he knew… or trying to at least, between periods of dementia. When the current drought has gone on so long that people worry about their crops, Oliver decides to go out into the world and bring back rain from the Cloud Farmers, only to find out that a mob of village people had that very same idea and is kind of forcing Oliver to go. Even though he would have done it anyway. So him and his familiar, an armadillo, make their way West to save their home (and maybe also a little bit to get away from that angry mob).
From the very beginning of this book, T. Kingfisher shows all the things she does best and the reasons why I love her fiction so much. You have an upstanding, brave hero who wants to do the right thing, a sarcastic but hilarious animal sidekick, and characters that are multi-layered and feel real. As a 12-year-old, being sent alone on a dangerous journey should make Oliver feel kind of pissed at his neighbors, but being the goodhearted boy that he is, with a real sense of responsibility, he does his best to understand why his friends would suddenly turn on him this way. He is not making excuses for them, but he sees them as real people with their own worries and fears and so can’t really be too mad at them for sending a child away alone.
This can definitely be described as an adventure novel, so Oliver and Armadillo get into quite a few scrapes along the way. I don’t want to spoil any details, but while there are encounters with supernatural creatures, the far more scary ones are those with other humans. Apparently, publishers refused to publish this as a middle grade novel, and yes, some scary stuff does happen, but I’d guess that kids could easily handle them. Especially because whenever Oliver is forced to make decisions where there is no easy division between Good and Evil, he examines his dilemma. Characters die in this story but Oliver doesn’t shrug these things off – they bother him, they make him wonder whether he’s made the right choice or not. It is small details like this that I find so important, not only because they show that the world just isn’t simply Good or Evil, but because it also doesn’t pretend that everything is always peachy and easy. Keeping ugly truths from kids – like that there are people in the world who will do gruesome things for no reason that you or I could understand – is way worse than writing something that will challenge a young mind to think for itself.
Oliver himself was such an endearing character. Not only the way he always tries to see from other peoples’s point of view and thus understand their motives, but also because he just has a good heart. He knows only three spells and using them gives him nosebleeds. But he wants to be so much better! So this story is not only an adventurous romp through fantasyland, but it is also about a young boy who, at first sight, may not have the greatest gifts or abilities, but who learns that sometimes what you already know is all you need. Armadillo, snarky as he may be, is a great help in teaching Oliver that the few spells he knows can go a long way, if employed creatively. It’s a beautiful message to both kids and adults out there who sometimes feel like they are not good enough. I’d say it’s a feeling we all know, and realizing that although there may be many others who are better at a thing than you are, that doesn’t mean your abilities aren’t worth anything. Sometimes, they are not only enough, but exactly right!
Lastly, let me say again how utterly charming Kingfisher’s language is. She writes with heart and humor and just gives me warm and fuzzy feelings whenever I pick up her books. Any of her stories are perfect for getting out of a reading slump, for picking up when you feel down. If you want to be certain that you’ll have a great time and close the book with a happy smile on your face, go for T. Kingfisher. I love her writing so much and I can’t wait to read her first horror novel which just came out this year. If she nails that as well, than I am all the more impressed with her.
RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!