It’s vaguely amusing that 22-year-old Glee star Chris Colfer made Time’s 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, while the well-established, successful TV impresario who made him famous—Glee creator Ryan Murphy—didn’t. (Not to mention the rest of the show’s stars, writers, and creators.) But Colfer consistently seems to have his hands in more pies, and his face in more places, than most of the rest of his peers, and he’s earned a reputation as an up-and-comer ambitious enough to not want to be limited by genre or medium. His ambition has extended to writing, producing, and starring in a feature film (Struck By Lightning, which premièred at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and was picked up for distribution earlier this year); writing a TV pilot for Disney; and now writing an elaborate fairy-tale novel, The Land Of Stories: The Wishing Spell. Like Glee itself, The Wishing Spell occupies an odd middle ground in terms of suggested audience age—the simple voice and familiar tropes suggest it’s a kids’ book, but the 400-page-plus length and narrative complexity seem aimed at an older audience—but it’s a sophisticated first effort, suggesting a writer who grew up on fairy tales and couldn’t wait to get his own oar in the much-traveled waters.
The plot makes the story sound significantly simpler than it is: Bright, driven teacher’s pet Alex and her smart-mouthed troublemaker twin brother Conner have recently lost their father in a car crash, and their mother is struggling to make ends meet, to the point where their 12th birthday looks joyless and empty. Then their mysterious grandmother hands them a book of fairy tales, which contains a portal to a magical world, where they both promptly get stuck. Informed they can escape via a magical spell that will grant them one wish, they set out to gather the ingredients, which include elements like Cinderella’s slipper and a piece of bark from Little Red Riding Hood’s basket. So they set out to navigate a world they expect to know from fairy tales, but that turns out to be more complicated than expected.
The writing in Wishing Spell is sometimes amateurish, with sudden POV shifts, a heavy reliance on coincidence, and a tendency to overexplain emotional reactions rather than letting them come up organically. And compared to recent cinematic attempts to retell familiar fables for an older audience, like Mirror, Mirror; Snow White And The Huntsman; and the Catherine Hardwicke Red Riding Hood, Wishing Spell has a basic emotional palette that reflects its protagonists’ age. But Colfer plays with the genre’s familiar forms, giving characters like Goldilocks and Jack The Giant-Killer their own relationships and adult agendas, and weaving them all together into a cohesive, politically charged realm where human desire plays as much of a part as simple battles between good and evil. He also finds humor in the genre’s expectations, with the fairy-tale-loving Alex sticking to type by embracing the quest wherever it touches on familiar stories, while the more practical Conner looks for obvious workarounds like wading across a troll’s creek instead of solving the riddle he poses for those wanting to cross his bridge.
And while plenty of other people have explored the idea that there’s grist for the story mill after “happily ever after,” Colfer finds poignancy in Cinderella trying to come to terms with a populace that doesn’t want a serving girl as their queen, or a Red Riding Hood more focused on her personal agenda than her magical past. Ultimately, The Land Of Stories: The Wishing Spell may be aimed strictly at an audience of Chris Colfers: Young, smart, ultra-precocious readers who are ready to break with their youth, but are still close enough to easily spot it in the rear-view mirror.