The more time that I spent in the world of James Riley’s Half Upon a Time, first in a trilogy by the same name, the more deeply I became entrenched. I prefer, I admit, to be lost immediately to a world, but I am still impressed that at no point during the book was I thrown out of the world, and that, by the end, I was even marking favorite lines, mostly things that applied aptly to the world of my WIP, but also this wonderful moment of rare recognition within the genre of medieval fantasy: “Old age? I’m fourteen. That’s barely middle age” (282).
The story opens on Jack, son of Jack from the tale of the beanstalk, who lives in a small rural town with his grandfather. His grandfather, an adventure like Jack’s father, wants Jack to be an adventurer and hero too. Jack is enrolled with all the village boys in hero lessons. But Jack, who believes there are no unmarried princesses in the kingdom, has a difficult time taking the lessons seriously—and he’s not very good at rescuing imaginary princesses. As Jack and his grandfather are on their way home from another failed exam in which Jack lets the “princess” die, a girl wearing a tunic emblazoned with small jewels that spell “PUNK PRINCESS” falls from the sky and right on top of Jack.
May denies that she is royalty. She does not know how she has gotten there. All that she knows is that her grandmother has been kidnapped by a man dressed all in green and seven shorter men.
Believing that May is a princess—even the granddaughter of the missing Snow White—Jack is convinced that he has to protect her, and he and the princess escape the village and the unwanted attentions of Jack’s classmates on a demon horse tamed only by a magic harness to begin their quest to rescue Snow White.
On their journey, they fight and make allies among the familiar fairy tale characters including the Big Bad Wolf; the witch in the gingerbread house; a Prince Charming, Philip; Philip’s fairy godmother, Merriweather; Red Riding Hood; and the wicked fairy, Malevolent.
Riley creates a world in which all of these familiar characters exist twisted in a new and exciting way. He invents a history that has not filtered through to our world with the fairy tales, where the Western Kingdoms came together under the leadership of Snow White to defeat the Wicked Queen and her Magic Mirror. Snow White’s team of deadly assassins and specialists, which includes Rose Red, Rapunzel, and the Big Bad Wolf, stormed the Wicked Queen’s palace and defeated her, but none but Rapunzel have been seen since.
That alone makes this a more feminist fairy tale retelling. But also May herself is at least as heroic as Jack, though both, frankly, survive the tale more by luck and succor than on their own strengths or wit. Still, she’s a mouthy and resourceful girl.
Jack is equally mouthy and sarcastic, and also somewhat cynical, falling well into the modus operandi of heroes in today’s YA and teen fiction, joining Hiccup, Jace, Jaron, even Percy Jackson and Augustus Waters.
Riley’s narrative style fits well with that of the authors of those protagonists too, particularly the middle-grade writers, Rick Riordan and Cressida Cowell, who are publishing some of my favorite series.
The pace is quick, Jack and May stumbling into and out of trouble without much rest. Jack and May and even Philip became more likeable the further that I read—though whether that is because I was becoming more ensconced in the world or if I was becoming more ensconced in the world because I was coming to better love the heroes is a question that I cannot answer.
I can’t say that this was in any way a life-changing book for me, but it was certainly enjoyable, enough so that I would like to get my hands on its sequels, and it’s a lovely addition to the genre and subgenre. I’ve already recommended it to a few customers.
Riley, James. Half Upon a Time. New York: Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2011. First published 2010.
This review is not endorsed by James Riley, Aladdin, or Simon & Schuster, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.