I feel it important to mention that the author and his agent do not have a Biblical worldview, especially when it comes to marriage and gender – I didn’t see anything relating to this in the series, so it may be a more recent development, but I think it’s important to note.
Important Background Info:
The Half Upon a Time Trilogy consists of three books (though you probably already garnered that), entitled Half Upon a Time, Twice Upon a Time, and Once Upon the End. It’s a middle grade series (so for 8-12, but older kids would probably enjoy it) written by James Riley.
This series is set in a world of twisted fairy tales. May falls out of the sky into the little village of Giant’s Hand wearing a Punk Princess t-shirt, yet denies she’s royalty. Jack, who can’t stand royalty, is forced to help her search for her grandmother, who may just be Snow White. Once they rescue her, things very quickly fall apart, and May, Jack and Philip now have to save the world. Along the way they must save a bunch of fairy queens, try not to incur the wrath of the sea king (and fail), fight an evil angry fairy queen named Malevolent, and not get trapped in the Land of Never.
What I liked:
I liked how the author included elements from many different fairy tales in the story, though something about them was always different. The tales are always just a step off from how you think they would go. It was a ton of fun reading and recognizing different fairy-tale story elements, or characters. It was an interesting story to read.
James Riley is a humorous author. Even his acknowledgements page and author bio’s smack of his unique sense of humor. The story is hilarious. A lot of the humor is sarcastic or based off of totally obvious things being stated, or he will make a statement that makes no sense in anywhere else but the story world being said with absolute seriousness. It kept me chuckling.
Jack’s character arc (a character arc is how a character grows and changes in the story) is fun to witness.
A character sacrificially dies for another character, and I thought Philip’s perfect princely character was fun.
Content Concerns/Things to know:
Please note that I read laser focused on looking for content concerns so that I can write this review. It’s going to seem like there are a lot, but often they’re incredibly easy to gloss over or miss, and they’re not as concerning within the context of the story. 🙂
There are no Christian beliefs, though there is the ever present theme of good versus evil, and a character sacrifices himself for another. There’s actually a bit of musing in the story on good and evil and whether or not good always wins, and it’s done in a way as to not interrupt the flow of the story.
It’s mentioned once that people make wishes to the fairy queens (like their praying). A character says they will abandon people to whatever deities they worship.
The books assume an evolutionary worldview, but it’s not pushed or anything. The only reason I know this is because mermaids were teasing the humans about being half-monkey.
As we’re in a world of fairy tales, magic is a large part of the series, but it’s more general fairy-tale magic (think Disney), like magic books that copy down any story you tell it, mermaid tears that let you breathe underwater, magic reigns that calm down any creature you put them on, etc.
There are light and dark sides to it. When a character is being taught to perform a spell (actually, he never gets past the rules to spell performing because he ignore what the instructor says and accomplishes the task a different way), he is told that the magic will open his mind to spirits beyond the natural world who would like to take over if he lets them. In a list of worst possibilities, someone adds “creatures of darkest magic invade your soul and curse you to eternal torment?” The Wicked Queen is possessed by evil shadows.
There are witches, fairies, a satyr, giants, princes and princesses, talking animals, and tons of fairy tale characters (though I guarantee that none of them will be quite like you remember – it is the Half Upon a Time Trilogy, after all).
The sword of the Charmed One (who is dead) somehow calls his memory from wherever he is.
Crushes and kissing are a sizable part of the story. When May first meets Jack, she’s unconscious, so Jack kisses her to wake her up because he think’s she is a princess. She accuses him of trying to make-out with her. Situations where someone is unconscious and then kissed to get them to wake up (per the how-to-wake-a-sleeping-princess code of fairy tales) happen a least once a book.
May is only 14, but when she first arrives, everyone wants to marry her because they think she is a princess, including a 10 year old (though that’s also written for humor). Philip is only 15, but talking about marriage.
There are occasions where a guy notices how a girl’s hair or hand smells, or when they realize they are awkwardly close. A playing-wrestling-fight between Jack and May comes to an abrupt end when they realize they have their arms around each other and are awkwardly close. There is a love triangle between May, Jack and Philip in the beginning of the series.
It’s said that a pirate married, then killed dozens of women for their dowries (falsely – twas a made up story and identity so he could search for something).
There’s violence, though a lot of it is slapstick. For example, people fall from large heights (but are okay) or slam into hard objects (but are also okay).
The creepy parts can be creepy – for example, May and Jack get trapped in the house of a witch who wants to eat them (Hansel and Gretel style), and half to fly through the witch’s “children” who are creepy human-like creatures. There are a couple of threats (from wicked people, or people pretending to be wicked) to cut out someone’s heart.
Jack and Philip have to provide drops of blood from their hand to the Wolf King so that he can tell if they’re lying.
God’s name is, sadly, taken in vain multiple times (only in the first book).
A horse is described as a “demon horse.” A forest is called “possessed.” An ifret is called a “devil.”
It’s said characters yells obscenities/swear, but the words aren’t mentioned.
One unfinished, “I’m going to shove the broomstick right up your…..” (it gets cut off before it can go any further).
Someone says they’d rather “walk naked through snow that’s on fire…” than join the wicked queen.
When the creepy adult children are singing rhyming words, they sing “without a slip.”
The Wicked Queen tells May she’ll be interested to see something, and May asks the Wicked Queen if it’s “you getting your behind handed to you?”
Other things to know:
In a scene written for humor, Jack is trying to remember what Fairy Tales are called (he hadn’t heard of them before meeting May), and tells the librarian he likes reading fairy bottoms before realizing his mistake and very quickly correcting it.
Most of the characters have sizable attitudes. May’s shirt says “punk princess,” and words like “stupid” and “idiot” are frequently used to describe things. The way these characters greet people is usually with a rude or sarcastic comment, even if the person is trying to help. Along with the attitude, comes disobedience and lying (though sometimes the lies are to get out of life-threatening situations).
The one character who is polite and doesn’t lie is treated with contempt because of it. They say he isn’t worldly enough, and at one point he regrets not being able to lie to his mother.
Jack has extreme family issues – he was sent to live with his grandfather, grew up despising his father because everyone saw him as the son of a criminal (he stole from the giant in the clouds), and didn’t know he had a sister. When he finally meets his family, they all insult each other, Jack throws his sword at his father (though that might have been to see if his sister was in the room. She was, and caught the sword before it did any damage).
We learn that the Wicked Queen became evil when she was saved from death by shadows that removed her heart and locked it in a box to keep it from harm. They laid a curse on the heart that allows only her family to kill her. In order to defeat the Wicked Queen, Jack steals the heart. Then they shove it into the Wicked Queen’s chest (non-graphically), then stab her.
Jack attends princess rescue classes in the beginning of the book (which is actually a little funny). The “princess” is played by another boy in the village (that part is written to be amusing, not as a woke statement).
My little brother thoroughly enjoyed this story when he read it, and was somewhat eager to help me take the social media pictures for it. I also enjoyed the story when I read it, and I think your child might, as well. The biggest concerns are the attitude, and taking God’s name in vain (if my memory serves me right, it happened three times. I do remember it was only in book one). They aren’t written from a Christian worldview, and I would say they’re good books to read as long as most of your other reading is good Christian books or classics. They were hilarious, though. James Riley is very humorous!
The Wicked Queen tells May to follow her heart. We know this is a bad idea, but why?
What does the Bible say about taking God’s name in vain? Why does it say this?
Do you think the way Jack and May spoke to people was right? Why or why shouldn’t we talk to people this way?
How many fairy tales did you recognize in the story?
How was Jack’s sacrifice like what Christ did? How was it different?
The characters talk quite a bit about whether or not good always wins. What does the Bible say about this?
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(I’m not including an affiliate link to Half Upon a Time because it takes God’s name in vain.)
Taken from the author’s website, which you can visit here.
Half Upon A Time
“Jack lives in a fantasy world. Really. He’s the son of the infamous Jack who stole the magic beans from the giant, and he’s working hard to restore his family’s reputation. He finds the perfect opportunity when a “princess” lands in front of him, apparently from the land of Punk, as her Punk Princess t-shirt implies. May is from our world, and she’s utterly confused to find herself in the midst of the fairy tale characters she has read about. But Jack and May have more in common than they realize–and together, they embark on a hilarious and wild adventure in this highly accessible, modern middle grade fantasy novel.”
Twice Upon A Time
“Jack and May are back for another adventure in the world of fairy tales with a twist. Now that they know about May’s grandmother’s real intentions, they’re on the hunt to learn May’s true identity. The search for answers leads Jack and May to the world of the Sea King, where they land right in the center of a battle between mermaids and the Pirate Bluebeard. The laughter and action are nonstop in this book from author James Riley—the second in a trilogy!”
Once Upon The End
“Will there be happily ever after? Don’t miss the fractured-fairy tale conclusion to the action-packed and humor-filled Half Upon a Time trilogy! Jack and May have gone their separate ways, and each is now set on course to fulfill their destiny…or are they? Nothing is ever quite as it seems in the world of fairy tales, and the two friends are in for some huge surprises as they prepare to battle the Wicked Queen once and for all. Knights, fairy godmothers, giants, and beanstalks—all come together thrilling and hilarious conclusion to the Half Upon a Time trilogy!”