The Candy Shop Wars is cheap American candy. Younger palettes may initially enjoy the easy thrills of magic sweets, but after a few chapters, most taste buds will be numb to the flavor and ready to move on to something more substantial. The core recipe for the story is unbalanced, and the magic candy action is little more than a superficial additive intended to mask the bland flavor. While the book does not contain anything that is blatantly inappropriate or offensive, there is little to recommend it.
The story centers around a group of friends who live in a typical American suburb. Early in the story, they are coping with common challenges that face young people, like moving, making friends, bullies, and the like. This part is actually more interesting than what comes after it and contains the rare moments where some personality shines through and a sense of the characters begins to be established. Soon, however, the children are unknowingly drawn into a power struggle between wizards that dominates most of the space for character or theme development
Once the candy magic is introduced, the visible laws of material reality are called into question and space is made for wonder and anticipation for what is possible in this new magical world, but to no real purpose. At its best, fantastical fiction bends or suspends the laws of the visible, material reality in order to make the invisible, spiritual realities of human life more tangible. Because from this point we rarely or never go deeper into the meaning of good and evil, friendship, heroism, life, or death, it can feel like a hollow and unreal experience of life. From the moment that magic is introduced, the reader plods from one underwhelming episode to another, during which little time is taken to further develop the characters, to explore any significant themes, or even to entertain the reader with charmingly human moments. All action becomes preoccupied with moving the plot to its necessary conclusions or to explain the mechanics of a magical reality that has no real purpose other than to entice young people to read the book.
Beyond the purposelessness of it all, one of the plot elements is disturbing taken in itself. The real action begins when a wicked magician named Mrs. White moves into town seeking a treasure that will give her the power to dominate the world. She hides her ill intentions from the children and convinces them to do tasks for her in exchange for access to magic candy that lets them do various things, from running fast or jumping high to shocking people or exerting influence over their minds. After completing harmless tasks like cleaning and gathering mushrooms, the children are charged with increasingly immoral tasks. The third task that Mrs. White appoints them and the lack of reaction from the children is what unites this book with the less desirable trends in youth literature. The children are asked to distribute a magical fudge to their families and communities that will addle their minds such that they will not notice the magical shenanigans going on around them. The children distribute the tainted fudge with little or no compunction. What is more, even after the children discover that the fudge is highly addictive and that it brainwashes everyone in the community, they make little or no effort to awaken the adult world in their zombie-like state. They reason that it would be better to solve the problem of the magicians by themselves rather than to involve their parents or law enforcement. It is understandable that for a younger audience Mull wishes to narrow the number of actors on the stage, but the plot mechanism of the white fudge and the children’s acceptance of it diminishes our admiration for those actors.
Children leading the action has been a common element in youth literature of late, but here it is presented in the extreme. The children are the only ones who are acting as the champions of the non-magical majority, but there is nothing to explain why they have to. Because the magicians’ magic requires the children to consume the candy, by doing nothing the children would have rendered the magicians without sufficient power to accomplish their schemes. There is no good explanation for why the adult world would not be better equipped to contend with the evil forces at work, and it is even presented that avoiding getting into trouble with parents and authorities motivates the protagonist’s reticence to try and remove the adults from their mindless condition.
After breaking into the town museum and stealing an artifact for Mrs. White, the children begin to question the methods and intentions of their new employer. They then encounter a rival magician, Mr. Stott, who is more benign, though not entirely sincere himself. He soon earns the children’s trust and turns them against Mrs. White. They work for Mr. Stott for a time before being presented with yet another agent of the magical world who convinces them that they ought to assist him in stopping both of the other magicians from acquiring the object of power. After a series of events, it is up to the protagonist with the assistance of magical time travel to thwart the efforts of Mrs. White and to set things right.
It is appreciable that the magicians and their henchmen are not painted in black and white, and that it is an act of discernment for the heroes to know whom to trust. A desire for fun and empowerment in the form of magic candy gives way to a greater concern for the needs of the community and we recognize some limited personal growth in the children. The children grow wiser from their early mistakes and much of the climax is concerned with dealing with the consequences of their lapsed judgment and careless choices.
Overall, none of these criticisms are damning in a fundamental way; the book is lame, but for the most part harmless. The only group of parents likely to avoid this book are those who consider reading pointless stories to be harmful. Sweets are a nice occasional treat, but with young people, the challenge is helping them to recognize the long-term rewards of consuming more substantial material. Candy Shop Wars can be added to the ever-growing pile of beach-read young adult fiction.