More magic — or at least the promise of it — abounds in Stuart Gibbs’ “Once Upon a Tim,” illustrated by Stacy Curtis. Gibbs is the author of many earlier books, including the Spy School and Charlie Thorne series. Fans of heraldic nonsense like “The Princess Bride” and “Shrek” will be delighted with “Once Upon a Tim,” a charming take on the traditional chivalrous adventure.
Like those other tales, “Once Upon a Tim” subverts genre tropes in the service of satire. Poor Tim is a peasant, just like his parents and grandparents before him. The peasantry is an inconvenience. It’s a boring life filled with drudgery and more drudgery. There’s not much else to be in the kingdom other than village idiot, a position currently held that seems to involve getting mud in your pants. It’s not a realm with much upward mobility.
Tim’s fortunes change when a stinx, the “most horrible, terrible, deadly monster you can imagine”, snatches the neighboring kingdom’s princess, Grace. (The neighboring kingdom is not, as far as we know, Monaco.) Prince Ruprecht swears to save the good princess and, in doing so, to secure a beautiful and, more importantly, rich the bride. But first, he must gather a group of brave knights.
That’s where Tim comes in, along with his best friend, Belinda, “an iconoclast” – a word tagged an IQ Booster. (The book is littered with them, which is a little distracting, but taught me the word “borborygm”: the “strange gurgling noise your stomach sometimes makes.”) Girls aren’t allowed to be knights, so Belinda dresses up, and Tim agrees to keep her secret, since peasant girls have it even worse than peasant boys.
The two enlist in the service of Prince Ruprecht and his sorcerer, the sinister Nerlim, with Ferkle (the village idiot, who has just wandered to the knight trials), and leave the boring comforts of home for seek out the dastardly stinx. . What follows is a lot of nonsense and a lot of misfortune: the Forest of Doom, the River of Doom, the Chasm of Doom and the Mountains of Doom. They have to deal with man-eating butterflies, quarrelsome trolls and weary beasts of burden, not to mention Tim’s dog, Rover, who was once all-dog but now half-frog, thanks to a wizarding transmog.
They’re not a promising crew, of course, but their amateur princess rescue sparks mirth. The fun of the book comes from Gibbs’ deployment of deadpan humor and boisterous slapstick. Its heart lies in a clever subversion of type. No one is quite who we’ve been led to believe, let alone Tim, who may have been born a peasant but has the heart of a lion. Or, perhaps, a fr-dog.