Let me start by saying that I liked Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce & Laura Geringer, but it was a like that was hard earned. This is the type of book that has new writers shaking their fists at the sky, shouting “I can write this bad! Why can’t I get published‽” before ducking their heads and hoping nobody heard them.
The book is titled Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King but it begins with two unknown children we never hear from again, moves to a moonbeam, travels into the heart of Pitch where it releases a spectral boy and follows him as he joyfully bounces through the clouds, suddenly introduces us to a god-like wizard, and then dallies with overly clever children before finally introducing Katherine, a pivotal character who helps the children battle Fearlings. Then the backstory turns a page into the tale of the Golden Age, which is backstory to the backstory. Nicholas isn’t introduced until chapter six.
You can read from this description that the story lacks nothing in scope and imagination, but it packs all that backstory into the first five chapters. In all fairness to the artist/author team, new writers generally don’t create worlds as rich as the one in this book, but then new writers aren’t usually allowed to start books off this dryly—not if they want to get published. I just found myself bored with the tale initially due to its lack of focus. Taken individually the tales were all interesting, but for a children’s book it might be too much for younger readers to follow along.
When we are finally introduced to Nicholas, we learn he was a loveless orphan who was especially skilled at using weapons and stealing from people before leaving the Cossacks to create his own band of thieves. The story is told with a distance between us and the integral characters. They are like figures in history. The names wash over us in a sea of glorious, beautiful, but distant, information dumping.
Then, on page 79, Nicholas the Bandit King makes a decision, and the story finally comes to life. From there on forward, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King was based on the thoughts and deeds of Nicholas, Katherine, and Ombric the magician. For me at least, this is where the book really began.
Since the authors were establishing an alternate & fanciful history to the world, the backstory was important to tell. I simply didn’t enjoy how it was regaled, but then even as an older child I was not a fan of tall tales, which this story is in the tradition of. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Calamity Jane, and Johnny Appleseed have nothing on this tallest of tales by William Joyce & Laura Geringer.
If the reader hangs in there past the first third of Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King—and honestly there is still much in there to be enjoyed—the reader will be rewarded with a delightful and imaginative tale of heroic deeds, friendship, struggles against evil, the triumph of man over himself, and fanciful illuminations by William Joyce. You truly will enjoy yourselves, and want to read what comes next. Just don’t expect too much Nicholas St. North.
Release Date: October 4, 2011 (USA)
ISBNs: 1442430486 (9781442430488)
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Violence: 2 (storybook violence, swordplay, bears roar, evil creepy things act creepily, a girl is thrown into the stratosphere)