Book Review: ‘The Wizards of Once’ by Cressida Cowell

Author and Illustrator: Cressida Cowell

First Published by Hodder Children’s Books in 2017

Review by Miriam Atkinson

The Wizards of Once focuses on Xar, a non-magical wizard boy, and Wish, a warrior girl curious about magic. The Wizards and the Warriors are at war and when Xar and Wish accidentally meet in the woods they must overcome their ingrained cultural dislike of each other and work together to fight an ancient invisible foe…all without getting caught by their domineering and over-protective parents.

Cressida Cowell is the author of the much-loved series: How To Train Your Dragon. Although unconnected to the How To…Universe (as far as we know so far) the style of the series is clearly echoed in The Wizards of Once. Xar is treated as a social outcast and is viewed as being of low value due to his inability to perform. Son of the Enchanter, Xar is seen as a disappointment to his father in comparison to his older brother to whom magic comes naturally. This is comparable to Hiccup (protagonist of the How To…Series) who was also at the bottom of the social ladder despite being the son of the chief. Hiccup too was also a disappointment to his father due to his quiet bookish ways and his choice a pet dragon – the tiny Toothless.

Wish is clearly reminiscent of Kamikazi from the How To…Series. Both female characters are headstrong and independent. The youngest daughter of the Warrior Queen, Wish is not a natural fighter and uses her intelligence and quick-thinking to solve problems. Yet, like Xar, she does not fit comfortably into her society and is the first to question the harshness of the war between the Wizards and the Warrior – much to the unease of her fellow Warriors.

Cressida Cowell’s map of Once

The idea to write a novel about a pair of struggling protagonists is an important one. Aimed at a younger readership, it is likely that many young people will identify with characters who are lonely like Wish or outcasts like Xar and who are lacking in confidence or self-belief rather than characters who are living the perfect life with no worries at all. Seeing the characters overcome fantastical problems would, even subconsciously, give young readers a degree of hope and confidence while still being an entertaining novel.

Illustrated by Cowell, the novel is full of quirky drawings of the characters that simulate the reader’s imagination and help them to perfectly picture the event of the plot. An enjoyably unusual feature of The Wizards of Once is the variety of layouts that change from page to page. In some places the text curves around the images while in others typed text is replaced by handwritten notes. It is a wonderfully visually engaging book especially for younger readers.

The Wizards of Once manages a fine balance between being an entertaining fantasy story and integrating serious themes. These include self-belief, prejudice between cultures, breaking down culturally barriers, friendship, teamwork, family and accepting people for who they are. Although this is a book for a younger audience there is no reason why readers of all ages could not enjoy Xar and Wish’s story.

*This review was originally published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in November 2017*

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