The Evil Wizard Smallbone
Delia Sherman read the first chapter of her new book The Evil Wizard Smallbone out loud at ICFA last March, and it was delightful. I thought the title was going to be ironic, as in that first chapter, the “evil wizard” takes in a twelve-year-old boy who has run away from his cruel Uncle and is “cold and hungry, and not far from being scared.” He brings him into his kitchen and soon enough “the old man whose card said he was an evil wizard was hunched over the stove, frying sausages in a cast-iron pan” for the starving boy.
The “evil wizard” Smallbone tells the boy–whose name is Nick but the wizard is calling “Foxkin instead of the fake name he gave him”—that he will take him on as an apprentice.
After that first chapter, however, Smallbone turns the boy into a spider so he can’t leave. This made me wonder whether the wizard might really be “evil,” and Nick continues to wonder about this throughout much of the story.
While Nick is a spider, we find out about the nearby town, Smallbone Cove, Maine, where Smallbone has set up certain protections for the inhabitants. Five days later, when Nick gets turned back into a boy, he realizes that “he had really been a spider. Magic was real, and Smallbone was just what he claimed to be: a genuine, card-carrying evil wizard.”
Gradually, Nick begins to do all the jobs that Smallbone asked him to do as apprentice: cooking, taking care of the animals, and cleaning the bookshop attached to his house. As he learns how to clean the bookshop (this involves magic), he starts finding books about how to learn magic. He thinks that the evil wizard Smallbone does not know that he can read, but Smallbone continues to treat him as an apprentice, even taking him along on a trip to Smallbone Cove to take care of one of the inhabitants who got turned into a coyote by Smallbone’s nemesis, a much more evil wizard who can take the shape of a wolf and commands a pack of no-good-niks turned into coyotes.
Eventually, Nick finds out that all of the inhabitants of Smallbone Cove are originally seals, as Smallbone informs them that:
“I pulled your ancestors out of the sea and gave ‘em hands and feet and speech and thought they could work for me. In return, I promised to keep ‘em safe from anything that wanted to hurt them, wolves and coyotes included. That’s what them Sentries’re for. It’s on account of your neglect that they ain’t what they should be. So I better hear a little less about how I ain’t holding up my end and a little more about how you aim to hold up yours, unless you want to find out just how evil an evil wizard can be.”
The Smallbone Cove inhabitants soon discover that they can remember how to re-set the magical protections for their town by reciting half-forgotten nursery rhymes and childhood clapping songs. As one of them observes, “can you think of a better way to make sure everybody knows the words to something?”
As he learns more magic, Nick figures out how to transform some of the evil wizard Smallbone’s animals back into humans and discovers they are former apprentices, although he still describes himself as “a boy whose best friend was currently a bookshop.” He and Smallbone transform themselves into foxes to outwit his cruel Uncle, who has aligned himself with the coyote pack and come looking for him.
Finally, Nick is promoted. Smallbone tells him:
“You’ve passed all the tests, young Foxkin, outwitted the evil wizard, and slain the ogre—or at least made him mighty sick. You belong to yourself now, fair and square. You can go out into the world and seek your fortune, like them other young fellers who escape evil wizards. But,” he went on stiffly, “I’d take it kindly if you stayed with me. Only if you want to, though.”
“I want to,” Nick said.
In the end, Nick learns “why Smallbone never took off his hat and coat” and “why the Smallbone Mutt and Hell Cat and Ollie [the former apprentices] described was so different from the Smallbone he knew.”
The acknowledgments reveal that Sherman’s book is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale called “The Wizard Outwitted.” It’s a lovely and well-crafted tale for readers of any age. If you read the first chapter, I predict that you’ll be hooked, as I was.