Review: Denzil the Wizard (1991-2007)

Stories about Boy Wizards were a favourite part of my childhood reading material. As they often are for many people – it’s just that in my case, it wasn’t Harry Potter or Earthsea. Indeed, I only came to Harry Potter around the turn of the millennium, by which point I was already in my late teens, and as such outside the target age-group. Didn’t stop me borrowing the books off my sister, and thoroughly enjoying them, of course, at least until I hit The Order of the Phoenix and then later The Deathly Hallows. God, those later Potter books needed an edit. As for Earthsea, I read the first four books in my early 20s – they’re still fun reading as an adult, and deserved classics of the genre, but they weren’t part of my childhood in the way they are for many others.

No, the two Boy Wizard series that I loved as a child were The Snow Spider trilogy, by Jenny Nimmo, and Denzil the Wizard, by Sherryl Jordan. Having just completed a re-read* of the latter for the first time in about a quarter of a century, I thought it fair game for a review. Re-reading children’s books as an adult is always an interesting experience, and Sherryl Jordan also happens to be a New Zealand fantasy author – giving a spotlight to my compatriots doesn’t go amiss in this genre.

*Technically only a re-read of the first book, and part of the second. Everything else was a first-time read.

There are four books in the series, all of them short, so here goes…

The Wednesday Wizard (1991)

This was a book I adored as a child – it still sits on my bookshelf nearly thirty years after I first got it. Having re-read it recently, I can say it holds up as an adult, and is by far the best in the series, to the point where the remaining books feel like a disappointment.

The premise is simple enough. Denzil is a wizard’s apprentice in thirteenth century England, talented but seriously lacking wisdom. He learns to his horror that his master, Valvasor, is in danger, so tries a complicated spell to warn him… and winds up sending himself forward seven centuries, to the fictional city of Londfield in 1991 (the country of Londfield is never specified, but internal clues in the series point to New Zealand). He finds himself in the backyard of the MacAllister family, and has a truly zany time dealing with the culture shock, quite apart from trying to find his way home.

It’s the sheer rampant anarchy that makes this book shine. There is no antagonist, and the thing is extremely light-hearted and playful – think Bewitched meets Tolkien’s Mr Bliss, a collision of comfortable modernity with pure unadulterated magical chaos. For a book about time-travel, in its own strange way it has also become something of a period piece in 2021 – reminding me of a childhood where rented videos were a thing, where computers were not readily accessible, and where phoning someone meant a landline. If I were to point out an issue with it, I’d suggest that the elder sister Theresa is portrayed in an overly negative light, considering that Sam (the younger sister) is guilty of painting the family cat with pink lipstick. On the other hand, the book is from Sam’s point of view…

Oh and nearly thirty years later, I can credit The Wednesday Wizard for teaching me that the Wednesday before Good Friday is called Spy Wednesday.

Denzil’s Dilemma (1992)

Quite the come-down, and the book that taught me that sequels can be a disappointment. In fact, I never did finish reading it as a child, to the point where it took me until 2021 to actually complete it.

Essentially, the plot is a reversal of The Wednesday Wizard. Whereas in the first book, Denzil travels forward seven hundred years, here he manages to get Sam (and her pet rat, Murgatroyd) to travel back to his era. Sam, a modern person, finds herself in a medieval village, and this time Denzil must use his magic to cover her up, until he can find a way of getting her back to the twentieth century.

Denzil’s Dilemma is not strictly bad, of course, but it simply lacks the charm of The Wednesday Wizard. And it lacks the charm because the comedy is misplaced by the plot-reversal. Denzil is the source of comedy in this series, and he’s comedic because he’s such a delightful fish out of temporal water. Sam by contrast is the audience surrogate, and so we’re on the same level she is, instinctively exploring an unfamiliar world, rather than in the position of good-humouredly laughing at her. There’s a bit of drama about losing and finding Murgatroyd, but it’s all rather mundane, and the addition of the mysterious Waif feels tacked-on for added Christmas theme.

Worse, the fact that the setting has been shifted to the medieval era brings the historical liberties into focus. In The Wednesday Wizard, one can overlook that books in 1291 appear more common than they should, or that Denzil has pockets in his clothes. It’s not really relevant to the story, and the target audience won’t know or care. By contrast, in Denzil’s Dilemma, we’ve got villagers using the term ‘Black Death’ over half a century before the actual Black Death. And they supposedly know the disease is spread by fleas on rats too. Sure, I’m an adult looking in at a book meant for children, but I’d suspect much younger people than myself would find their suspension of disbelief stretched. We’ve gone from the secret joy of learning about Spy Wednesday to poking holes in the world… as I’ve said, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Denzil’s Great Bear Burglary (1997)

I think this one is the second-best in the series, after The Wednesday Wizard. I also didn’t know of its existence for many years, so I only read it for the first time recently.

The plot here is a reversion to the successful formula of the first book, only this time there is (appropriately enough) added thematic and dramatic complexity. Denzil, as per tradition, gets out of his depth in the most well-meaning fashion, by rescuing a tormented bear-cub from a nasty man at a Fair, only to realise he’s severely irritated his master for a wholly unrelated reason… so he does what he does best, namely travelling forward seven centuries to beg for help from the MacAllister family. Taking the bear with him. Cue the MacAllisters having to deal with both a time-travelling wizard, and a bear in their garage.

There’s less overt comedy here, but the issue of animal welfare is treated appropriately seriously. The bear isn’t as much a source of humour as it is of drama – getting veterinary care becomes a major plot point, and Jordan goes so far as to actually include an ethical discussion on the subject of using animals to test human medicines. Not the sort of thing you would expect after the light-hearted romp in the first book. I also liked that the most developed romantic subplot in the entire series – featured in this book – involves a widowed grandmother and an elderly neighbour. Unconventional, but thoroughly heartwarming.

The major downside to the book is its portrayal of Mr MacAllister. In his previous outing, in The Wednesday Wizard, he’s treated as a tad overdramatic (“he used to be an actor”) and unjustifiably prejudiced against Theresa’s boyfriend, Adam. He’s a bit silly, a bit full of himself, but still a perfectly serviceable character. Here he starts to go full Flat Earth Atheist (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FlatEarthAtheist) when confronted with actual magic, and acts like a cruel idiot by making off with Denzil’s charm. The supposed excuse is that he’s stressed-out at his waning eyesight, but that feels hamfisted as an excuse. It’s a sad blot on what is otherwise a very good book.

The Silver Dragon (2007)

The fourth and final (so far) Denzil book, The Silver Dragon is the hardest to categorise. It’s easily the most uneven book in the series, and the plot is a bit of a mess… but it does have its redeeming features, even as it reaches new depths of weakness. Unlike Denzil’s Dilemma, which one feels was doomed to mediocrity from the premise, The Silver Dragon feels like two different books smooshed into one, and that Jordan would have done better to focus on one or the other. In short, the execution is off, resulting in a classic Curate’s Egg.

The “first” book involves Denzil deciding he wants to help Friar Gregory fulfil his dream of bringing books to the masses. He’s seen printed books in his journey to modernity, so maybe if he got the MacAllisters on board, they could help him with this whole Printing Press thing… so he casts a spell, and manages to bring the entire family (minus elder brother Travis, plus Theresa’s Adam, plus the family car) to his own time. Unfortunately, this hits a dead end when Adam points out that building a Printing Press two centuries too early would really screw with history. And that’s really it for that plot-line, apart from some stuff about how awesome Roger Bacon was, and how the Internet is as revolutionary as the Printing Press.

(Speaking of the Internet, it’s one of the oddities of the series that whereas the first book is explicitly set in 1991, with the technology to match, this book, published in 2007, has the modern MacAllister setting with the Internet and ipods. And that no-one is aged up to fit. It’s rather like The Simpsons in that respect, except that the Denzil books basically assume you have read the previous ones rather than jumped straight in).

The “second” book would be a tad spoilery to describe, except to note that it’s a swerve into proper High Fantasy, rather than zany Urban Fantasy, and features the only genuine antagonist of the entire series. Parts of this had the potential to be truly excellent, and there are some interesting ideas on the Power of Belief and Disbelief… but alas, it feels all-too rushed and under-developed, quite apart from the fact that aforementioned antagonist is explicitly attempting the impossible. All told, it’s a plot-line that deserved better.

My other major issue with the book is the further treatment of Mr MacAllister. If he’s a cruel and short-sighted (literally!) moron in the third volume, here he’s actually unhinged – to a degree where he generates cringe and pity, rather than the anarchic comedy the series can do so well. Jordan tries to use him to further her thematic discussion of Belief and Illusion… but it does such violence to the character that it wrecks my suspension of disbelief in a way that even Denzil’s Dilemma never did. Oh well.

*

Such are my thoughts on a prominent piece of New Zealand fantasy literature. As much as I hate to say it, there is actually a strong case for only reading the first book (a genuine classic, so far as children’s books go), and leaving the rest. In a strange way, my fond memories of The Wednesday Wizard might have clouded my judgement of these books for a quarter of a century. On the other hand, in all fairness, Denzil’s Great Bear Burglary is actually pretty decent, if you don’t mind a bit of Serious Business in your zany fantasy. And it’s not as if any of them are demanding in terms of length. Who knows… one day we might even get a fifth book in the series.

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