The Ickabog
By J.K. Rowling
Scholastic, 2020

The Ickabog is a dark and twee fairy tale, a fun one-off project to brighten the lives of children during the Covid-19 pandemic by actively involving them in a fantasy dystopia.

During the same period that Rowling was writing Harry Potter, she was also writing a novel-length fairy tale fantasy as a bedtime story for her children. It was never properly finished, much to the distress of her children. Enter 2020, a year when many children are stuck at home away from their friends, and need something fun to do... and also, a year that Rowling could use a nice publicity stunt to distract from transphobic comments.

The Ickabog was published online, and children were asked to draw illustrations; this was posed as a contest, with the winners having their illustrations included in the final, published book. Entries were submitted by posting to Twitter, using the hashtag #theickabog, and thousand of entries are still on Twitter for your viewing. While it was initially presented as if the book would remain up online for all to read for free, this no longer appears to be the case, and while some content still remains on, it appears that readers now have to purchase the book.

All of Rowling's profits from the sale of the book will go to her charity, the Volant Charitable Trust; it was initially stated that the proceeds would go specifically to their Covid-19 Response Fund, although it is unclear if this is still the case. It is estimated that each purchase of the book will send about £2.00 to Volant.

The story centers around a weak and conceited king, and the brave children who battle against his conniving underlings. It starts out in the idyllic country of Cornucopia, where everything is perfect, and there is lots of good food. Lots and lots of good food -- that's kind of the theme of the country. Unfortunately, the king is not all too bright, and he falls prey to two lords who flatter him into complacency and start a very sneaky coup.

Things turn dark quickly. The king, in a fit of foolishness, decides he wants to hunt the Ickabog, an imaginary monster that lives in the far swamps. During the hunt one of the king's sycophants accidently shoots the captain of the royal guards, and blames it on the monster... and a plot is born. Taxes are levied to fight the monster, soldiers are trained, and it is declared traitorous to say that the Ickabog is not real. People who might tell the king the truth about what is happening in his kingdom mysteriously disappear, highly placed people in the king's court are blackmailed or bribed to comply, the ruling cabal takes control of the mail, the army, and the tax collectors... and it's up to a group of plucky kids to take down the system.

This is an interesting book. It is very much a walk through the basics of enacting a particularly Machiavellian silent coup, and the author does not shy away from the fact that people are murdered -- lots of people. Good people, brave people, and children are murdered, left to rot in dungeons, or starve to death. It is also a fairly twee fairy tale, where the biggest joy in life is the perfect pastry, the adults are silly fools and caricatures, and handing people a pretty flower wins them over to your side. The contrast is somewhat startling, and not a bad effect... although I suspect some parents may have been somewhat dismayed when the body count started to take off.

Overall, a good book, and worth a read if you are into silly children's fairy tales. It reminds me somewhat of The 13 Clocks done long-form and for children. However, it is also a good walkthrough of how despots come to power, and does not shy away from blackmail, threats, violence, and the economic impact of failing states. This is a good thing for kids to have access to, but if you are buying this for a kid, make sure they are ready for it -- it does have a happy ending, but it also has a mountain of corpses.