The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, was published in 2016 by Candlewick.
All Nick wants is a place to shelter from the blizzard that hits after he runs away from his uncle’s. What he gets is someplace warm to live, plenty of hot food, and the company of two dogs, two cats, four goats, one pig, a flock of chickens, and a grumpy old man who won’t let him leave. Evil Wizard Books may be cozy and Smallbone Cove idyllic, but the wolf is at the door—literally. The Evil Wizard Fidelou and his pack of biker coyotes are howling at the village border, and its magical Sentries are slowly failing. For a three-hundred-year-old self-proclaimed evil wizard, Zachariah Smallbone seems strangely at a loss. It’s a good thing Nick was lying about not being able to read. Smallbone may not be willing to teach him magic, but the bookstore is. And Nick is more than willing to learn. Even if the bookstore is awfully bossy.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone is the story of two wizards, who are pretty much destined to fight each other, and the events that lead to their confrontation, prominently featuring a boy apprentice who (of course) significantly assists in the defeat of the villain. It features an interesting take on magic that I really enjoyed; elemental magic is certainly not anything new but the way Nick learns it was entertaining and were my favorite parts of the book.
The world was tightly crafted, though a little confusing at times. Sherman is a good storyteller, which helped to smooth out some of the more awkward bits of world building, though I still raised my eyebrows a few times. For example, there’s really no explanation as to why Nick already believes magic is real even before he goes to Smallbone’s—and if he doesn’t think it’s real, he’s awfully calm when things get strange. Furthermore, Nick’s cousin seems to take it in stride that there’s a magical shape-shifter who can change him into a coyote with a pelt; in fact, he doesn’t even seem surprised by the fact that he can change into a coyote at all. There’s a few other things that are rough around the edges that Sherman hand waves away, but the latter are the most prominent examples that I can think of. Let’s just say that I found the characters’ reactions to things suspect.
However, I did really enjoy the plot aspect even if I found Fidelou to be an annoying villain. I liked that the focus was mainly on Nick and learning magic, rather than on Smallbone and his confrontation with Fidelou, and even though the lead-up to the confrontation was a little abrupt, it came to a satisfying, if not wholly unexpected conclusion.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone has a few problems in worldbuilding, but overall it’s satisfying, entertaining, and interesting in a lot of its magical elements. Nick is a good protagonist; Smallbone is the quintessential grumpy old wizard but it’s a trope I love so I liked his character. The other characters were memorable as well, though I could have done without the mundane biker gang. Sherman is a solid writer, though some of her skills need a little work.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Very good indeed. You’re an inspired liar, Foxkin. You don’t embroider unnecessarily, you give just the right details, and you know when to stop.”
Nick put on his best innocent look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Fox by name, fox by nature.” Smallbone stared at him through curls of foul-smelling smoke. “You can’t fool me, you know. So you’d better not try. Now,” he went on, “it just so happens that I could use an apprentice.”