The Language of Spells

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Language of Spells Book Poster Image
Viennese girl meets dragon in sweet, poignant fantasy.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The story spans several centuries, so the reader gets glimpses of such figures as Austria's emperor Franz Joseph, as well as everyday life in World War II London and late 20th-century Vienna. All the dragons have Latin names, which they helpfully translate. Maggie speaks several languages so she knows what the names mean.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of courage, friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice for your loved ones.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Maggie and Grisha's lives are transformed by their friendship, which leads them on a quest to save Grisha's fellow dragons. Several adult characters, notably Maggie's father, the eccentric but loving poet Alexander, and the young Hungarian banker Yakov are loving, supportive, and determined to do the right thing for loved ones. Later, Yakov's now adult daughters help with the quest.

Violence

A villainous sorcerer has imprisoned, enslaved, and in some cases killed all the dragons who once lived in Europe, and also killed other characters. Protagonist Maggie's mother died in a car accident when Maggie was 3, and her father still grieves. Grisha's father, like most other dragons, died in battle.

Sex

When magical creatures and real-world ones fall in love, there's usually trouble from humans trying to kill magical creatures.

Language

One scene has protagonist Maggie saying "Crap!" several times. She's also disappointed that she still has to pee, even if she's on a quest.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several scenes take place in a hotel bar, where Maggie and Grisha first meet. Adults drink alcohol and smoke tobacco. Dragons drink fermented apple juice.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Language of Spells, by Garret Weyr (formerly known as Garret Freymann-Weyr) is the story of the friendship between an 11-year-old girl and a much older dragon in late 20th-century Vienna, and how they try to rescue dragons missing for decades. There are strong themes of magic, and also of how it requires great sacrifice to work. Death and loss are important to the story: Maggie's mom, a famous artist, was killed in a car accident, and Grisha the dragon has lost both his parents. There's a lot of sweetness, humor, and relatability (as well as Latin) in the budding, life-changing friendship and the kindness of many characters. But beware: There's heartbreak too.

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What's the story?

Born in 1803 in the Black Forest, young dragon Benevolentia Gaudium, known as Grisha, falls prey to a sorcerer using THE LANGUAGE OF SPELLS and spends over a century in the form of a golden teapot before a kind man sets him free just after World War II. Hearing that his fellow dragons are now in Vienna, Grisha goes to join them, only to find them (and soon himself) imprisoned and put to work, if not disappeared entirely. Magic has fallen out of favor while he was enchanted. After about 50 years of this life, he's hanging in a hotel bar with his dragon pals when he notices a small girl sleeping under one of the tables. It's 11-year-old Maggie, who lives an eccentric life in the hotel with her loving father, a famous poet. The two lonely souls become great friends, and as Grisha becomes more and more concerned about the long-missing dragons, dragon and girl are determined to save them.

Is it any good?

Garret Weyr's imaginative tale of a girl and a dragon teaming up for a quest in late 20th-century Vienna offers eccentric charm, sweetness, life lessons, Latin, and more than a bit of heartbreak. Katie Hartnett's fanciful illustrations bring the characters and setting to life. The story may be too emotionally intense for some readers, but it delivers plenty of moments with the ring of truth, as here, when Maggie, whose mother died when Maggie was little, realizes something as she becomes friends with Grisha:

"So this is what it feels like to miss someone, Maggie thought. ... It would be like thinking about Grisha with the knowledge that he'd never be at the Blaue Bar ever again. That must be what missing Caroline was like for Alexander. ... She looked at her father as if seeing him for the first time. Alexander's day, no matter how busy he was, would be shaped by not seeing Caroline. Every day was like that for him."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about dragons. Some stories are about slaying them, and others are about making friends with them. Which kind of tale do you prefer? How do you think The Language of Spells compares with other dragon tales you've read?

  • Do you speak more than one language? When you were learning your second language, did other people who spoke it help you out or make fun of you (as happens to Maggie in the story)?

  • If you could do or get something incredible that you really want, but it would cost you something you really love, would you go for it or leave well enough alone?

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