This book reads far differently for me as a mom now than if I’d read it before my kids were born, but I’d like to think that my younger self would still have appreciated how terrific, how finely crafted this tale of a young wizard on a quest to save his village is.
Oliver is our titular minor mage. He knows all of three spells, learned at the feet of an aging wizard, and one of them is to alleviate his allergy to his own armored familiar, Armadillo. Armadillo has a real name, of course, but one doesn’t go around calling a wizard’s familiar by his real name, so calling him by his species name will have to do. Oliver is also twelve years old, and when his mother, a former adventurer, heads to the next village over to help his older sister with the birth of her first child, he decides he’s going to take the opportunity to travel to the distant Rainblade Mountains in order to bring rain to his drought-stricken village. Unfortunately, a mob of his own villagers interrupt his packing to demand he set off immediately, turning his youthful folly into a much less savoury undertaking. On the plus side, Oliver acknowledges, once his mother gets back she’s going to be much less upset with him than with their fellow villagers.
So off Oliver goes, and over the course of nearly 200 pages, he has adventures that make him think about community and what people owe one another, though in far less abstract terms. His adventures are hair-raising and near fatal, but he learns so much about his capabilities and limitations. He also, unabashedly, misses his mother. Which got me to thinking, as I do every so often, of how few stories talk about good, heroic moms, at least in comparison with dads. For every Not Without My Daughter you have three Taken movies, after all. Not that Mom comes in to save the day here, tho: this is still very much a book about Oliver’s choices and agency. But it was nice to see the loving bond between living mother and child, especially in a fairy tale genre rife with dead or cruel maternal figures.
Tho as in real life, younger readers likely won’t even notice this. They will, however, appreciate not only Oliver’s adventures but also the wit and charm of the writing in general. T Kingfisher blends humor and suspense with just the right touch of gore, underpinning everything with a thoughtful look at how children deal with unreliable adults, as well as with how the idea of adventure rarely lives up to reality. Most importantly, she underscores a lot of things you don’t often find in fairy tales: how it’s okay to be scared sometimes, how it’s okay to miss your mom, how it’s okay to feel bad about making tough choices and, my personal favorite, how it’s okay to not want to be normal. Overall, an outstanding book from an author I’ve long wanted to read, and currently my favorite for the Lodestar Award at the 2020 Hugos.