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Literature / The Evil Wizard Smallbone

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Published in September of 2016, Evil Wizard Smallbone is a standalone novel by Delia Sherman.

Nick Reynaud has run away from home. This is fine with him; with his mother dead, and his abusive uncle Gabe and bully of a cousin Jerry making his life hell, he would rather risk dying of hypothermia in the rural winter than going back there. However, before things turns for the worse, he finds himself staggering onto the porch of the self-proclaimed Evil Wizard Smallbone, a cantankerous old man who says he needs an apprentice, and that Nick— now called Foxkin— will do. Being a wizard's apprentice, Nick finds, is a lot like being a wizard's housemaid or farm hand. He spends his time cleaning, cooking, tending to the barnyard animals, trying not to get turned into a spider, and learning no magic from Smallbone. His only friends are the sentient books found in the Evil Wizard bookstore who do start to teach him.

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However, an Evil Wizard does have some responsibilities, like keeping the nearby townspeople in their place while also keeping a pack of shapeshifting coyote bikers out of their place. The denizens of Smallbone Cove, a town founded by Smallbone hundreds of years ago, have to follow certain rules in order to protect their town from magical threats— rules the latest generation have not been following. Now Smallbone's nemesis, an even more evil wizard by the name of Fidelou, has his sights on the town, on Smallbone, and on Nick.

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This novel provides examples of:

  • Animal Metaphor: Nick, a clever, trouble-making kid and a consummate liar is dubbed Foxkin by Smallbone. Later, when Nick finally learns how to shapeshift, guess what animal he turns into?
    • It turns out that, while Smallbone is a master shapeshifter, the animal that matches his own nature is also a fox, albeit a red fox instead of a gray one like Nick.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Smallbone is a master of transfiguration, and he frequently turns Nick into animals when he gets contrary. Late in the book, we find out that a good chunk of the farm animals Nick has been tending to are actually failed apprentices.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Miss Rachel was fourteen, she stole a pumpkin from Samllbone's garden. In return, he withered her legs, causing her to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. He let her keep the pumpkin, though.
  • Elemental Powers: While Smallbone and Fidelou are experts in shapeshifting, Nick's magic is specifically elemental.
  • Evil Uncle: Gabe. We know he's bad from the tidbits Nick gives us about past abuses, but when he shows up again later, he has no problem trying to shoot Nick when it looks like he's escaped.
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  • Happily Adopted: By the end of the book, Nick and all the children the old Smallbones had transformed have been adopted. Smallbone has Nick, Miss Rachel has Hellcat, and Mutt and Ollie have Lily.
  • Hot-Blooded: Nick. It is implied to be a result of his traumatic life with Gabe and Jerry, and his explosive lack of control is the biggest barrier to him being able to master transformation magic.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Played with regarding Smallbone. Midway through the book, Nick comes to the conclusion that Smallbone is just a crotchety old man who might shapeshift him into things in order to teach him a lesson, but would never actually hurt him. Then he finds out that most of the animals he has are past apprentices who failed or annoyed him, some of which have been animals for over a hundred years. Zigzagged again when it's revealed that the Smallbone who did that is not the Smallbone who's teaching Nick, and that the current Smallbone actually is far kinder than the previous one.
  • Legacy Immortality: The Smallbone training Nick is not the Smallbone who maimed Miss Rachel or turned the other kids into farm animals. That was the Smallbone before him, and the Smallbone before that.
  • Meaningful Name: A tricky kid named Nick Reynaud— a variation of the French word for Fox. Smallbone calls him Foxkin without ever knowing Nick's real name. That's because he senses Nick's 'true self', that he shapeshifts into later, is a fox.
  • Meaningful Rename: Smallbone calls Nick Foxkin and refers to him as such for the rest of the novel.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: In keeping with the FairyTale motif, Nick tells Smallbone on their first meeting that he can't read, which makes S Mallbone happy because he can have an apprentice who can't read his books of magic. turns out Smallbone knew immediately Nick was lying, but let him pretend anyways because it was it was funny.
  • Our Were Wolves Are Different: Fidelou is a French wizard and loup garou. However, his minions are humans transformed by a magic pelt he gives them.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: the people of Smallbone Cove. They're descended from seals Smallbone pulled out of the sea and transformed into humans.
  • Sink-or-Swim Mentor: Smallbone.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Smallbone and Fidelou specifically mention that, as Evil Wizards, they function by certain narrative rules. The book shop tries to help Nick figure the rules out by giving him fairytales to study.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Whenever someone is shapeshifted into an animal, they become that animal in mind and body. unless they've been trained on how to keep their mind intact. The experience is so traumatizing, Nick has nightmares about it later.
    'He didn’t want to go through anything like the spider episode again. It wasn’t so much being a spider that bothered him — the spider had been perfectly fine with it. But that spider hadn’t been Nick. It had just been a spider, and the Nick who remembered his mom and hated his uncle had been nowhere.
    • One of the shapeshifted children living in Smallbone's home is so traumatized from the experience that when he's turned back into a human, his mind is so broke and accustomed to being an animal that he can't go back to living as one anymore, to the point where he can do nothing but cry and meow and try to crawl into people's laps. Nick turns him back into a cat for his own sake.
  • The Runaway: Nick. After three years of living with them since his mother's death, he's finally had enough and has left his abusive uncle and cousin.
  • Transformation Trinket: How Fidelou builds his pack. He gives humans magic coyote pelts that transform them, but also cause them to become slavishly loyal to him.
  • Trickster Mentor: Smallbone. He gives Nick seemingly-impossible or pointless tasks specifically to help him figure out how to use his magic, has him clean the library so it can contact him and teach him magic at his own pace, and he knows Nick can read but prefers to let him squirrel around, studying in secret, because it's amusing to watch.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Smallbone's favorite expletive is "Jeezly". Nick is said to know— and use— more powerful language he picked up from his uncle, but those words aren't printed in the book.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Smallbone and Fidelou are experts— Smallbone even wrote the book on it. Mastering this trick is one of Nick's goals for much of the book; once he figures out how to shapeshift himself, he'll be able to shift himself back to human if someone else transforms him.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Nick's uncle Gabe. Nick's cousin Jerry. Fidelou. After dealing with them, Smallbone merely shapeshifting his teeth to be inconvenient seems like a breath of fresh air.
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