Review of Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Once There Was

by Kiyash Monsef
read by Nikki Massoud

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 11 hours, 28 minutes.
Review written July 3, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Speculative Fiction

Once There Was is a contemporary fantasy tale interwoven with Persian stories that begin, “Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

Marjan is 15 and owns a veterinary clinic after the violent death of her father a few weeks ago. The police don’t have any clue who did it, and Marjan feels detached from it all, trying to keep the clinic running.

Then a mysterious woman sends her plane tickets to London to visit a griffin. When Marjan places her hands on the griffin, she senses everything the griffin is feeling, and he is very sick. And that is how she learns that one of the stories her father told her is true – and she inherited a gift from her father going back to an ancestor who was pierced by a unicorn’s horn. Oh, and besides that – griffins and other magical creatures are real.

But then Marjan gets entangled with more than one powerful group who wants to control who has access to these amazing creatures, and she wants to be on the side of the creatures, but which side is that? In her efforts to help, she has some amazing adventures, while trying to understand her place in all this, keep the clinic afloat, and figure out who killed her father – all while trying to keep her friends from worrying about her.

She gains some allies along the way, including a rich boy from London whose family has hosted the griffin for centuries and a teenage witch whose familiar is ill – and needs a place to stay. It’s good she has help, because it turns out that everything is riding on the fate of these magical creatures, and Marjan and her friends are going to need to save the world.

My one little complaint about the book is that the big climactic world-saving action happens with still more than an hour left in the audiobook. But the things that follow are pretty crucial to Marjan’s story, too, so I don’t think I’d want it changed – or put off and resolved in another volume.

The publisher is marketing this for children (ages 10 to 14), but Marjan is 15, in high school, and dealing with adult things like running a business, and has a friend who drives. So I think teens will enjoy the book, too.

I didn’t begin this eaudiobook until it was almost due to expire, so on the last day, I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and listened to the last 4 hours (sped up a tiny bit), and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book. I love the way the interspersed Persian tales illuminate the story and keep the feeling of magic strong.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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