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Book Review: The Land of Stories The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

 Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Fairy tales are life lessons disguised with colourful characters and situations, preaches Mrs Peters to her class of apathetic pre-teens, among them our twin protagonists, swotty Alex and snoozy layabout Conner.

After this valiant bit of Aesopian moralising, Peters'goes on to bemoan the loss of the original Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm tales in favour of Disneyfied bastardisations and the competing charms of computer games and violent movies. And thus, the scene is set for Chris Colfers middle grade portal fantasy The Land of Stories.

For Alex and Conner, the tales told to them by their father were a source of support and moral sustenance used to help each square peg twin feel slightly less out of place in this round hole world. But since their fathers death (travelling home from his bookstore, no less), the two have had to get by largely by themselves, with their mother working double shifts to help ends meet, and their quirky grandmother off jetsetting about the world.

After some eighty pages of this scene setting, and much of it involving the elucidation of the various morals and teachings of the fairytale canon, Alex and Connor find themselves deposited into a parallel realm populated with all the tropes, characters, and histories so familiar to those with a family tradition of bedtime stories. (Im so glad Dad and Grandma read to us so much growing up! says Conner. Who ever would have thought it would be this useful?) Think Shrek, only with less humour and less accomplished writing.

Once in the fairytale realm, the twins effectively switch personalities, with know-it-all Alex taking on the role of the dreamer, and dopey Conner morphing into the problem solver. And indeed, they have a few problems to solve, the key one being collecting from about the realm the various fairytale-themed artefacts required to complete the wishing spell that will get them back home. Its a task that sees them pinching glass slippers from a pregnant Cinderella, breaking into the castle of obnoxious and air-headed Red Riding Hood, trawling about creepy troll dungeons and attending fairy courts. Oh, and theyre also battling it out against Snow Whites wicked stepmother, whos on the same treasure hunting trail.

But though the twins seem to come up against myriad problems and dead-ends and life-or-death situations, each is resolved with almost magical ease, and the book quickly begins to feel more like a scenic stroll through fairyland in search of souvenirs than an actual narrative. Most of the problem solving is done for the twins via a diary that explains what needs to be done in order to overcome each obstacle, or occurs through happy coincidence.

Theres a sense of the author speaking down to the reader, with jokes being explained, and thematic resonances being given the same treatment, just in case a reader has somehow missed them. For example, Alexs explanation of the moral of Cinderella is appended with, Was that really what Cinderella was about, or was it what she'needed Cinderella to be about?

This sort of exposition occurs throughout the book, simplifying and explicating to the point of patness. For example, the amusing reveal of the various Prince Charmings being brothers is diluted by the explanation that follows. (Of course! says Alex. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty all married'Prince Charming! Theres more than one! How come I never thought about that?)

The writing is terribly uneven as well. Though the characters voices are at times inconsistent, its the narrative voice that needs work, as it often feels amateurish and childlike. Take for example the line describing the childrens arrival in the fairy realm: He completely startled her. Alex lost her balance and fellheadfirst into the book! There are also a surprising number of lines involving Conner stubbing his toe: Conner was so upset that he kicked a tree, but he ended up just hurting his foot. Ouch! he yelled. And indeed, the said bookism here is apt, for characters yell, shout, shriek, moan, whimper, growl, demand, bellow and what have you to a rather impressive degree; POV errors occur as well, such as on page 122, where we suddenly slip into Goldilocks point of view.

In addition to formatting errors such as the curiously centred paragraph following a line break on page 250, there are also a surprising number of examples of structurally or semantically problematic sentences. For example: They jolted at the sound of another voice besides their own (semantically strange) and the higher she climbed, the less she looked down at the ground, fearing it would tamper with her effort to reach the top (a strange use of tamper), she was so determined to see the top of the tower (where the so is out of place when not followed by a clause beginning with that).'A few other choice quotes include The twins could feel their hearts sink into the pits of their stomachs (a strange turn of phrase given that its being used to describe excitement, not despair), and Alex gave Conner a really dirty look and It happened by total accident, said Grandma (both instances of the extraneous usage of totally/really/so/completely).

Colfer has his work cut out for him creating something fresh out of very, very well-mined territory, but there are some entertaining, creative moments here. The storys at its best when the inner proselytising adult is set to rest and the kids and the narrator are given space to joke around and enjoy themselves without feeling the need to finger-wag and tsk tsk. Fun little nods such as the name of Goldilocks horse (Porridge), Conners disgust at the obnoxious, perfect unicorns, his suggestion that Sleeping Beautys empire take up coffee drinking to increase productivity, and his curiosity about princes and their interest in dead girls hint at what this book could have been with some solid editing.

As it is, however, the book feels as though it underestimates its target audience, eschewing subtlety and depth in favour of careful explanation and simplicity, and its this, along with its somewhat bloated length and troublesome editing, that prevents the book from reaching the heights it might otherwise have.

Rating: star Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colferstar Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colferblankstar Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colferblankstar Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colferblankstar Book Review: The Land of Stories   The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer (okay)

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy

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  1. The premise for this story sounds enticing, its a shame its execution does hold up though. Very fair review

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Jayne! Its a fun premise, but I think its a tough one to pull off because these stories have been so well mined over the years. There are some great bits in this, but I think that it needed a bit more tightening overall.

  2. This book is actually called the Wishing Spell, not Well.

  3. I couldnt even get through the first chapter, tbh. It reminded me of a less well-written version of The 10th Kingdom and I couldnt handle that, lol. :)

    • Stephanie /

      The beginning moves very slowlyit takes almost a hundred pages for the protags to enter the Land of Stories, and most of that is backstory that could be very easily cut. Its also interesting how much a writers style can make or break a book. This one just felt, somehow, too American for the story, which I know is an odd complaint, but there you have it!

  4. Wow, what a shame. I was kind of excited for this though admittedly a bit skeptical coming from such a young actor (the whole would it have been published if he hadnt been famous?). Ill still read it at some point but I wont be in a hurry.

    • Stephanie /

      It really feels very unpolished, and I was surprised by the poor proofreading job throughout, particularly given that my copy was the final published copy, too, not an ARC.

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