The Evil Wizard Smallbone: Young readers will love this funny, exciting fantasy

Readers’ average rating:

The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman children's fantasy book reviewsThe Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman fantasy book reviewsThe Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

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.

Published September 13, 2016. In a hilarious tale reminiscent of T. H. White, a lost boy finds himself an unlikely apprentice to the very old, vaguely evil, mostly just grumpy Wizard Smallbone. When twelve-year-old Nick runs away from his uncle’s in the middle of a blizzard, he stumbles onto a very opinionated bookstore. He also meets its guardian, the self-proclaimed Evil Wizard Smallbone, who calls Nick his apprentice and won’t let him leave, but won’t teach him magic, either. It’s a good thing the bookstore takes Nick’s magical education in hand, because Smallbone’s nemesis—the Evil Wizard Fidelou—and his pack of shape-shifting bikers are howling at the borders. Smallbone might call himself evil, but compared to Fidelou, he’s practically a puppy. And he can’t handle Fidelou alone. Wildly funny and cozily heartfelt, Delia Sherman’s latest is an eccentric fantasy adventure featuring dueling wizards, enchanted animals, and one stray boy with a surprising knack for magic.

SHARE:  Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by

9 comments

  1. April /
    Fun!I found this one a fun read as well!
    • Have you read The Porcelain Dove or The Freedom Maze? I think I want to read both of those now, although they are more serious than this book.

      • April /

        No I haven’t but I’ll go check it out now!

        • I’m going to order them both today. Sherman told a sad but amusing story at FogCon about Freedom Maze, which is about time travel, and slavery in the US. A “committee” of editors wanted her to make the slavery less unpleasant and the white slave owners “nicer” because it was YA. She gave them back their advance and found another publisher.

          • April /

            Wow. People still do that kind of thing? I’ve got both on my list now.

  2. The joy of having a young teen in the house–I can pick up books “for him”. Yeah, that’s what I’m doing . . . Thanks for the tip on this book and author!

  3. Kevin S. /

    I love books that are set against a frigid winter setting. I grew up in Alaska and the cold, dark winters can be claustrophobic. The Shining (set in the Colorado Rockies) is a great example. Can’t wait to read this!

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your own review

Rating