Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
In A Hidden Magic, when ordinary Princess Jennifer and handsome Prince Alexander wander into the Enchanted Forest, things quickly get messy. Alexander, who doesn’t believe in magic, angers a magic mirror and falls into an enchanted slumber. Jennifer does believe in magic, so she finds out how to break the spell with the help of a rather unusual sorcerer named Norman. Unfortunately, breaking the spell means defeating Malveenya, the most wicked and powerful sorceress in the world. Oh, and they also have to avoid a cranky witch, a hungry giant, and a fire-breathing dragon.
A Hidden Magic is a light, satirical take on the fairytale quest. (I picked it up for the Trina Schart Hyman illustrations, but I stayed for the fairytale fun). And the language is very fun: “Once upon a time—before kings and queens were replaced by an act of Congress and when kissing a frog still sometimes resulted in more than a case of warts—there lived a princess named Jennifer.” See? Fun!
It’s extremely short, with quick transitions as the characters wander into each situation, resolve it, and then hit the next one at a breathtaking pace. Jennifer is a pleasant protagonist: her kingdom is tiny, her appearance non-spectacular, but her heart is bold. Alexander is self-important and perfectly frustrating. Norman is shy, and very smart. The villains are suitably villainous. Adventure ensues!
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Strong Female Characters (or not)
Princess Jennifer is very down-to-earth, which I liked. She’s kind and really wants to do the right thing, whether that means being polite to an Important Prince, or breaking a spell, or not allowing a monstrous sorceress loose in the world. Good for her! And yet, once she meets the young sorcerer Norman, she does little to advance the story. He knows the history of the Forest, he solves most of the problems they encounter, and he has the real magic. He’s a nice guy, but I would have liked to see a bit more of Jennifer’s spark in the second half of the book.
The Old Witch is another important female character. She starts out as a minor antagonist, but then shows up at the end to help out. She is portrayed as sneaky and cranky, but also a little tragic. By contrast, Malveenya is beeeeautiful and eeeeevil. She hurts people just because she wants to and has literally no redeeming qualities. Her greed is her downfall, and no one weeps for her.
There’s a very abrupt passage in the book in which Jennifer realizes she loves Norman, not the handsome Alexander. The only problem is that this is simply stated. There’s no reason to believe it (other than that Norman is nice and Alexander is kind of a snot). It also seems unnecessary, since Jennifer went on the quest to save Alexander not because she was in love with him, but because it was the right thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with Jennifer and Norman being in love, but it feels tacked on (especially because the story takes place over two days, tops).
There’s very little overt violence, just a lot of threats. Alexander attacks the magic mirror, which retaliates with the spell. The giant threatens to cook the protagonists, but they get away. A dragon threatens to eat them, but is also tricked. Malveenya makes some really cruel suggestions about what she’ll do to everyone, but none of those get carried out. Overall, the story is safe, and very tidy. Evil gets its comeuppance, good triumphs, and all ends well.
This is like a palate cleanser for epic fantasy. Younger readers should enjoy the clear narrative and silly prose. Older readers will appreciate the satire in the story. Because it’s so short, there’s really no reason to say no.
A Hidden Magicby Vivian Vande Velde
Published in 1985 by Magic Carpet Books
Read purchased print copy