More magic — or at least the promise of it — abounds in Stuart Gibbs’s “Once Upon a Tim,” illustrated by Stacy Curtis. Gibbs is the author of many previous works, including the Spy School and Charlie Thorne series. Fans of heraldic silliness like “The Princess Bride” and “Shrek” will delight in “Once Upon a Tim,” a charming take on the traditional knightly adventure.
Like those other such, “Once Upon a Tim” subverts the genre’s tropes in the service of satire. Poor Tim is a peasant, just like his parents and grandparents before him. Peasantry is unpleasantry. It’s a boring life filled with chores and more chores. There isn’t much else to be in the kingdom, other than the village idiot, a currently occupied position that seems to involve putting mud in one’s pants. This is not a kingdom with a lot of upward mobility.
Tim’s fortunes change when a stinx, the “most horrible, terrible, deadly monster you can imagine,” snatches away the neighboring kingdom’s princess, Grace. (The neighboring kingdom is not, so far as we know, Monaco.) Prince Ruprecht vows to rescue the good princess and, in so doing, secure himself a beautiful and, more important, rich bride. But first he needs to gather a posse of brave knights.
This is where Tim comes in, along with his best friend, Belinda, “an iconoclast” — a word labeled an IQ Booster. (The book is littered with these, which is kind of distracting but did teach me the word “borborygmus”: the “weird gurgling noise your stomach makes sometimes.”) Girls aren’t allowed to be knights, so Belinda disguises herself, and Tim agrees to preserve her secret, since girl peasants have it even worse than boy peasants.
The two enlist in the service of Prince Ruprecht and his wizard, the sinister Nerlim, along with Ferkle (the village idiot, who just happened to wander over to the knight tryouts), and leave the boring comforts of home to seek out the dastardly stinx. . What follows is much silliness and much doom: the Forest of Doom, the River of Doom, the Chasm of Doom and the Mountains of Doom. They must contend with man-eating butterflies, quarrelsome trolls and fed-up pack animals, not to mention Tim’s fr-dog, Rover, who used to be all dog but is now half frog, thanks to a witchy transmogrification.
They are not a promising crew, to be sure, but their amateurish princess-rescuing gives rise to merriment. The book’s fun comes from Gibbs’s deployment of deadpan humor and boisterous slapstick. Its heart lies in a clever subversion of type. Nobody is quite who we were led to believe, least of all Tim, who may have been born a peasant but has the heart of a lion. Or, maybe, a fr-dog.