Review: Jinx, The Wizard’s Apprentice by Sage Blackwood

It’s not every day that your evil stepdad abandons you in the deep, dark forest of Urwald.  And it’s not every day that a wizard rescues you from the clutches of gnarly trolls.  But for Jinx, this isn’t turning out to be a very normal sort of day…
The bubbling cauldrons and coloured potions of the wizard’s house are a world away from the life Jinx has left behind. Even the walls are soaked in magic, and it’s not long before Jinx begins to unlock his own rare powers.
But Simon magus is no ordinary wizard. He seems to need something from Jinx – something dark. And Jinx begins to wonder: can he trust Simon…at all?

Technically, Jinx, The Wizard’s Apprentice is not ‘young adult’ fiction; in fact, it’s what’s now known as middle-grade (aimed at readers of around 9 and upwards), but the cover, designed like a leather-and-metal-bound book of spells, caught my eye, as did the way the story is summed up. As soon as I started reading, I knew I’d not been wrong. Like the best-written middle-grade fiction, Jinx has great characters and a great adventure at its heart, providing humour, excitement, tension and wonderful, imaginative world-building.

Jinx himself provides our narrative viewpoint for the majority of the novel. It’s not first-person, so we’re not restricted purely to his thoughts alone, but we do get his tone and his naivety, as well as his matter-of-fact nature. We also get his secrets too – Simon Magus thinks he’s pretty useless but Jinx has a way of ‘listening’ to the world around him that proves invaluable to him later on. The style of narration means the story certainly has a feeling of the fairy tale – there are wizards, witches, trolls, and wolves, not to mention kings in far away lands, but I was most reminded of Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Sage Blackwood, or should I say Karen Schwabach, has taken these familiar elements and mixed them up, to surprise us and work against our expectations.

Jinx and Simon are gradually joined by a fascinating cast of characters, over the course of the story. On the grown-up side, we have Sophie, Simon’s particular friend who arrives in his house through a magical door, and Dame Glammer, a witch who travels in a hopping milk churn and who may or may not be trustworthy. And, of course, there’s the Bonemaster, an evil wizard about whom  Jinx has heard bloodcurdling, terrifying tales since before he can remember.

For some time Jinx doesn’t have anyone his own age to spend time with, other than a girl with a red cape who he sees through an enchanted portal. However, when he decides to take his fate into his own hands after something rather strange and unsettling takes place, he first meets Reven, a wannabe-robber unaware of the Truce of the Path, then Elfwyn, the girl from the Farseeing Window. Both these young people are heading to the same place as Jinx – Dame Glammer’s house – and both have some kind of enchantment placed on them, although it’s only slowly revealed what those might be.

That’s something else that works so well about Jinx, The Wizard’s Apprentice – the speed of the storytelling is just perfect. The pace is fast enough to keep a reader interested, with new characters, funny, curious or worrying events and new developments but we’re never hurried through. I felt that I was discovering the Urwald and Jinx’s world at the same rate that he was. Schwabach/Blackwood doesn’t rush us past important moments of learning or emotional depth, but also isn’t afraid to skip time to move us on, because who can doubt that much of Jinx’s time as an apprentice is far from thrilling? No one wants to read about weeks of pot-scrubbing! Instead, we get the perfect highlights reel.

Despite a fairytale sensibility, Jinx’s no-nonsense perspective and the twists of plot line bring us right back down to earth, in the same way that Rick Riordan makes Greek and Roman demigods seems perfectly normal strolling around North America. That means that the drama and tension do make an impact, rather than seeming remote or ‘safe’. This story doesn’t need horror or gore to be very exciting, moving and even tragic, as Jinx and his friends do their best to solve their various problems. I found myself wiping away tears towards the end of this book as I rooted for Jinx, Elfwyn and Reven. I was so pleased to see that this will be the beginning of a series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m sure many younger readers will feel the same.

Jinx, the Wizard’s Apprentice is out now in paperback from Quercus, at £6.99


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