One of the best middle-grade fantasy adventures on the shelf, James Riley’s hilariously exciting adventure hooks you on page one and doesn’t let go until you’ve finished the last page.
Half Upon a Time follows the story of Jack, the son of the Jack who climbed a beanstalk and stole magic items from the giant. Jack is working hard to repair his father’s reputation and knows he needs to find a princess to rescue if he’s ever to show his face around town again. When a princess named May literally lands in his arms from a weird hole in the sky, it seems like the perfect opportunity. Who cares if she’s from the land of Punk, as her “Punk Princess” t-shirt clearly says?
Riley’s voice—through Jack, of course—is dry, witty, and hilariously funny on every page, and Jack is the kind of eager-but-unlucky hero that you care about on every page, even when he gets wildly jealous of May after a suave prince steps into the story and takes over Jack’s quest.
Riley mixes humor with peril like a pro, keeping you on the edge of your seat while making you chuckle with delight at Jack's snappy dialogue and May's quick sarcasm. The plot line is full of twists, the ending is perfect, and you are ready to keep turning the pages right into book two.
The only questionable content I can think of would be a couple of scary moments with some grotesque villains who emerge in the dark, wild forests, but these are short and only add to the thrill of the experience.
While this story does have some heart, which I greatly appreciated, one thing that I find it lacking is an underlying theme. It’s delightfully entertaining, but ultimately doesn’t have a real point when it’s all said and done. This is signature to Riley’s works, much like his other middle-grade series, Story Thieves (which I’ll review soon), and doesn’t detract from the story in any way. So don’t expect any major revelations to come from reading this story—only a rollicking good time.
With all that said, I would give Half Upon a Time a rating of 8 out of 10. If Riley had infused the story with an overarching theme, it would have gotten a perfect score ... but as it is, I highly recommend it as a perfect example of a bestselling middle-grade novel.