The Wizards of Once

The Wizards of Once was written by Cressida Cowell and first published in 2017. It is a middle grade fantasy series, set in a world where magic using Wizards and non-magical Warriors are constantly at odds with each other. The novel forms the first part of a series and is followed by Twice Magic (2018).

In the Dark Ages, the woods of the British Isles were a place of magic. Wizards practiced their crafts in the Wild Woods, making potions and befriending the sprites, giants and snowcats that lived nearby. However, they never saw eye to eye with the Warriors, who confined themselves to the Warrior Fort and the surrounding countryside. The Warriors did not have magic and used iron, which had the ability to sap a Wizard of their power. They were also completely unreasonable, believing that all magic was evil and punishing any Wizard that they found.

Xar is the youngest son of King Encanzo of the Wizards but carries a secret shame. He is thirteen years old and so his magic should have come in by now, yet he can’t cast a single spell. However, he has a cunning plan. He intends to hunt for a Witch – a legendary creature that is believed to be extinct – and find a way to steal their dark powers. However, his Witch hunt is called short when it is interrupted by Wish – the youngest daughter of Queen Sychorax of the Warriors – who has recently come to possess two enchanted artefacts and is keen to hide this fact from her mother.

Seizing a chance to gain powers for himself (and show up his older brother Looter), Xar steals Wish’s magical sword and heads home to enter himself in a Spelling contest. Yet it soon becomes clear that his rash actions have terrible unforeseen consequences. When one of Xar’s friends is cursed, he is forced to team up with Wish to hunt for the cure. Unfortunately for him, this cure can only be found deep in Queen Sychorax’s dungeons…

If you’re a fan of fantasy stories (or have young children), chances are you have already heard of Cressida Cowell. Her first series – How to Train Your Dragon – was a massive success and inspired a series of animated movies of the same name. However, I unfortunately can’t comment on any similarities between The Wizards of Once and Cowell’s more famous work as I haven’t actually read any of it. Yet, based on her popularity alone, I was really excited to get my hands on The Wizards of Once. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Let me begin by sharing with you the opening paragraphs of this story:

Once there was Magic.

It was a long, long time ago, in a British Isles so old it did not know it was the British Isles yet, and the Magic lived in the dark forests. Perhaps you feel that you know what a dark forest looks like.

Well, I can tell you right now that you don’t. These were forests darker than you would believe possible, darker than inkspots, darker than midnight, darker than space itself, and as twisted and tangled as a Witch’s heart. They were what is now known as wildwoods, and they stretched as far in every direction as you can possibly imagine, only stopping when they reached a sea.

Wow. I mean, just wow. This is how you capture a reader. I immediately fell in love with the way that the unidentified narrator weaves their tale. There is something so evocative about the way that Cowell is able to set the scene in just a couple of short sentences, promising a world that is full of dark and mysterious magic.

Unfortunately, in just a few pages, I found myself hopelessly lost. Within 20 pages (many of which are just full page illustrations), Xar has barged into the scene and brought with him an enormous entourage of magical creatures, shouting new concepts and heavily expositing what is next to come. I found this immediately a little off putting as I just felt utterly overwhelmed by Cowell’s world. It brought to mind Explorers on Witch Mountain, which similarly introduced so many characters that it felt unfocused. As there were so many voices, there seemed to be little space for actual plot. In fact, it probably did not feel as though the story found its feet until around the half-way mark.

The world-building of The Wizards of Once is good fun but didn’t really offer anything that I had not seen before. It’s a story about age-old feuds and groups of people who are unable to see eye to eye due to their conflicting beliefs. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that these beliefs do not have much of a root in reality.

While there are some dangerous magical creatures, magic itself is not as intrinsically evil as the Warriors believe. This notion is more something that is perpetuated by their leader, whose motivation is currently unknown. Yet, as Xar comes to know Wish and Bodkin (her young bodyguard), he learns that not all Warriors are the heartless monsters that he believed. It’s an important moral about not allowing the prejudice of others to cloud your world view and is presented in a way that is always appropriate for its target audience – largely humorous but also containing a few creepy moments.

Cowell’s gorgeous illustrations really help to bring her world to life, nicely capturing the personality of her characters and adding even more humour to what is already a massively entertaining story. Because of this, I would really recommend buying a physical copy of the book. The hardback in particular is lovely, with a beautiful foil raven hidden beneath the dust-cover and some stunning full-page sketches. It certainly is a thing of beauty and looks great on the shelf.

When The Wizards of Once enters its second act, the plot really kicked it up a notch as the protagonists are forced to undertake a dangerous mission to the Warrior Fort. This half of the story is enthralling, introducing some creepy villains and containing some very well-hidden twists. Although it is clearly intended to be the first book of the series, it still ends on the perfect note. Although a couple of loose ends are left hanging it still felt like a solid story in its own right.

Yet the thing that gave me the most pause were the characters. Some of the protagonists of The Wizards of Once are great. Wish, for one, is a fantastic female lead. Despite her obvious weaknesses, she is brave, compassionate and eager to learn. I also liked the way that the relationships between parents and their children are portrayed in the story. The adults are all complicated, with both Encanzo and Sychorax clearly wanting what they believe is best for their children, even if that may not actually be the case.

And then, there is Xar…

I understand where Xar is coming from and that behaving like an arrogant git at all times is a way of hiding his insecurities. After all, he is the son of a great Enchanter King and yet can’t use any magic. Yet, at the same time, I did not feel as though he actually learned anything in this novel. Despite the damage (and very nearly death) that he caused, Xar is still the same rude little monster at the end of the story that he is at the beginning. As The Wizards of Once draws to a close, he does not seem to have taken on board any of the dangers that have been blatantly pointed out to him.

The villains of the story are also rather flat, with Witches simply being “evil” with no obvious reason for why they behave this way. While this does lead to be a few creepy encounters, it sadly also made them a bit forgettable. They’re just monsters and don’t seem to have a lot of depth beyond this. Hopefully, this will be something that is expanded on in the next book.

Anyhow, I think that covers everything. All in all, The Wizards of Once is a bit of a mixed bag. While it has some great characters and can be incredibly funny, it is slow to find its feet and…well…there’s Xar. While I didn’t find it to be greatly memorable, I am still curious enough to read on and find out what will happen next.

The Wizards of Once can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic | Arkham Reviews

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