The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.