Tag Archives: atypical hero

Book Review: Half Upon A Time is a Comfortable Addition to the Genre


halfupona time

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.

Book Review: Reviving the Oldest Tales: The Hobbit


Click to visit the publisher's site, for links to purchase, summary, excerpt, about the author, and reader's guide

In preparation for the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest epics, I returned to The Hobbit, a book beloved in my childhood, reviled in high school (such that I wrote it a song to the tune a verse of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown’s “The Book Report”), and now…

The Hobbit is so clearly more suited to a younger audience than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It is not just the subject matter and length that define it as such, but the tone which Tolkien uses—one that seems to me to talk down to its readers, much as I do not think that that is Tolkien’s intention.  Tolkien intends, I think, for the tone of The Hobbit to resemble that of a fireside tale—but that is not a style to which modern readers—and especially modern teens and young adults—are accustomed.

It’s almost as if Tolkien is the grandfather of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, cutting and inserting himself as he deems necessary: “She does not die at this time.  I’m telling you because you looked scared.”  “This is boring.  Skip to the good stuff.”  “You’re sick.  I’ll humor you.”  “But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”  “I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales or one or two of the songs that they heard in that house.”  Where The Lord of the Rings is at times too poetic, the tone of The Hobbit is at times too conversational for my taste and gives too much away and keeps things too light which should be dark and ominous—because it reminds the reader that it is only a fireside tale, and if it is a fireside tale, then deemed appropriate by the elder Tolkien for younger ears.

And yet, The Hobbit is not a classic by chance.  Tolkien introduced the world to the sort of high fantasy epic that is today so common.  The story of The Hobbit itself is well-conceived, exciting, and there is no one I’ve yet found who quite rivals Tolkien’s appreciation for the time that a journey ought to take.  Tolkien introduces readers to well-conceived characters and races of which few in the modern world had dreamed and reawakened in modern men the ideas of goblins and trolls and creatures of mythology, giving them a new life that I imagine the Vikings never imagined for them.

Bilbo Baggins seems an interesting choice for a hero—even the novel’s characters agree.  He is hardly the typical hero of the old epics, burly warlords wielding magic swords and leading hoards of men or facing beasts alone armed with steel and courage.  Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit of the green Shire, is hired for burglary, not for his strength but for his smallness, not to fight openly with steel but to sneak without engaging, a trickster of old—though he turns out to be much more than that, engage frequently, and like the tricksters, battle with words as often as steel.  Though even his steel involves a measure of sneak.  He does not cleave, hammer, or bite as his friends’ elf-blades; he merely stings.

So much of Tolkien is reviving of mythology; we forget that.


Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Hobbit.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1996.

This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Del Rey Book, Ballantine Publishing Group, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.