Latest review: The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling

By Ekta R. Garg

November 18, 2020

Genre: Children’s fantasy

Release date: November 10, 2020

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it! / 3.5 stars

When a bumbling king lets his evil advisors take control of his kingdom, the advisors use rumors to scare people into submission. Two best friends, however, refuse to let the pressure force them into doing the wrong thing and devise a plan to reveal the truth instead. Author J.K. Rowling returns with a story that will remind everyone why her writing has had such a huge impact with her newest work The Ickabog.

In the kingdom of Cornucopia, King Fred the Fearless is loved by everyone. Well, as far as he knows. The kingdom runs so well on its own that he really doesn’t have to do much other than make appearances to his adoring constituents and go hunting with his two best friends, Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon.

Spittleworth and Flapoon live in the palace with the king where they all spend most of their time agreeing on how wonderful Fred is. When news comes of a visit by a king from a neighboring kingdom, Fred orders a new outfit be made as soon as possible for the occasion. Despite being ill, the head seamstress stitches the stately uniform and drops dead the morning she finishes it.

Fred feels a niggle of guilt for demanding the seamstress’s speed, but Spittleworth and Flapoon reassure him he did nothing wrong. His guilt grows when he hears that Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, called him selfish, vain, and cruel. To prove that he’s not any of those things, Fred goes on a quest to save Cornucopia from the Ickabog.

Legend has it the Ickabog stays near the Marshlands on the northern side of Cornucopia. Unlike other parts of the kingdom, the Marshlands are a hard place to live. Fred knows this is probably exaggerated, given how often his friends commend him on the condition of the kingdom, and sets out to defeat the Ickabog once and for all.

Complications come up when the party hunting the Ickabog loses one of its members. To cover up the terrible accident, Lord Spittleworth starts spinning a web of lies to convince first Fred and then the people of the kingdom that the Ickabog is a terror to be feared. Fred starts to cede control to Spittleworth and Flapoon bit by bit, allowing them to tax Cornucopians and announcing stringent new laws. Soon the happy kingdom becomes a worn, tired, bleak place to live.

Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, refuses to accept the circumstances, however. Even though her father is imprisoned and she’s thrown into an orphanage, Daisy fights against the system. Her best friend, Bert, starts digging through all the murky facts to find out the truth. Although their friendship is tested and even ceases at some points, the two manage to find their way back to one another again in time to make a shocking discovery that may just save all of Cornucopia after all.

Author J.K. Rowling returns to children’s literature for the first time in more than a decade. Between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Ickabog, Rowling has written several novels for adults under a pen name. This latest release shows how much the world of children’s literature could benefit from her return to it.

The book is reminiscent of old fairy tales, offering tried-and-true life lessons: too much pride almost guarantees a great downfall; compromising with a bully doesn’t yield true friendship; be willing to look past differences to find what’s common underneath. An omniscient narrator tells the story, offering readers confidence that all will (most likely) be well by the end. Like the original fairy tales, however, the dangers to get to that end are real and, for some characters, irreversible.

In a foreword, Rowling shares that she wrote this novel in between drafts of the Harry Potter books. All of her concentration at the time was on the boy wizard, and she didn’t think much of this story until the pandemic hit this year. She took out The Ickabog, polished it, and began posting it in installments online for children to read while stuck at home.

The richness of Rowling’s world and the sharp wit of her narration will make older readers and adults smile. Younger readers may not fully absorb the parallels between the story and current world events, but the lessons are good ones all the same. While some might seem a little on-the-nose, readers might find it refreshing to see these lessons set down in black and white.

There are almost too many characters to keep track of. Lord Flapoon, in particular, disappears at points while Lord Spittleworth schemes to keep his pockets full. As a book, it’s not the most polished effort but it’s perfect for reading aloud and sharing with the family.

For the past year, Rowling has been mired in controversy about comments she’s made regarding the trans community. This book will remind readers of who Rowling was before all of that. It certainly may make many readers hope that Rowling gets back into her writing space and spends more time there and less time on social media. I rate this book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

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