In the tradition of Susan Cooper, a lyrical, dark fantasy for mature middle grade readers.
Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2023, 416 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grade, Ages 12-15
Recommended For: Ages 12 and up
Marjan cannot remember a time she was close to her father. After her mother’s death, he lived in his own world. But now he’s been murdered, and the police have no leads. 15-year old Marjan is left with his veterinary practice to run and school to finish. Then, a stranger arrives with a commission for Marjan, and she realizes her father lived a double life. In one, he was an Iranian-American vet in California. In the other, he worked for a secret organization, a vet for mythological creatures. This mysterious organization wants Marjan to carry on her father’s work.
Realizing the magical world might hold the answer to her father’s murder, Marjan is torn between investigating, curing magical animals, and showing up at school where she lies to friends about her life. (How does one explain that you spent the weekend in England with a sick gryphon, befriending a very nice boy in the magical world at the same time?) As Marjan reluctantly discovers a unique affinity with mythological creatures, she remembers mythological folk tales from her father, the only hints into his secret life. With strange happenings threatening both magic and the greater world, Marjan might be the only one able to help.
Told with a poetic interlacing of fairy tales, Once There Was is a poignant exploration of loss and longing. Marjan struggles to reconcile her father’s memory with his work. She is thankful for her friends, but feels a strange separation in her loss. Something is missing in her life. For most of the plot, this seems to be something symbolic. I found myself thinking it was a beautiful way of tangibly capturing loss, a girl convinced that part of her is broken. But, mild spoiler, there is more to Marjan’s emptiness.
Once There Was is a beautiful dark fantasy. The world building is fascinating. The use of folk tales and legends is on point and achingly beautiful. Yet this isn’t a hopeful or a redemptive tale. Death happens. Loss happens. That is the way it is. Marjan befriends a young runaway, a hopeful witch who has run away from her religious parents. The witch’s explanation of magic is a little too close for comfort because it sounds like a magic that could come out of the book of Exodus, as told by one of Pharaoh’s magicians. This is a witch who isn’t like Harry Potter, but one you might meet in your neighborhood.
Told with a lyrical, brooding intensity reminiscent of Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander, Once There Was also echoes the pagan darkness captured by Cooper and Alexander. It is a deep book, and a thoughtful book. As a debut novel, it is exceptional. Kiyash Monsef has abundant talent. His ability to weave a beautiful story for young readers is outstanding. For mature middle graders, with an understanding of worldview, this could be a thought-provoking fantasy. What would the world look like if there was only an impersonal power beyond our understanding? Read it alongside Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue for another side of Iranian-American stories life … a much more hopeful side.
Thematic Violence/Horror (While not gory, some of the mythological creatures are creepy)
Worldview (Magic is portrayed as a real power)
Profanity (God’s name is taken in vain on a couple occasions)
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Worldview/Moral Rating: 2.5
Literary/Artistic Rating: 4.5
Read more about our ratings here.
How is the magic in Once There Was similar to magic in the story of Exodus? What does the Bible warn about practicing magic?
Merriam Webster defines the word “fey” as: “marked by an otherworldly air or attitude” and often, “marked by a foreboding of death or calamity.” This could be a good description for the mythological animals in Marjan’s world. As Christians, when we look at amazing creatures and creation, we think of words like “glory” and “creator.” How does our worldview give us hope?
How does Marjan show (or not show) forgiveness and mercy?
Related Reading From Redeemed Reader
A Review: *A Pocket Full of Murder (a more hopeful MG fiction with excellent magical world-building and a mature protagonist)
A Review: *Hope in the Valley (A recent novel that also deals with grief -but with hope!)
A Resource: Retro Reads: The Prydain Chronicles (Betsy reviews and discusses Lloyd Alexander’s classic fantasy series.)
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