What do you get when you mix a group of young, misfit adolescents with a cantankerous one-eyed man, a scrappy orphan girl and a cowardly knight?  Give up?  You get one whale of an imaginative and wickedly good story…that’s what!  Beyond the Wicked Willow by M.J. Rocissono is a tale which will aptly capture the reader’s imagination and magically enchant fantasy lovers everywhere!

The story begins with our hero, 14 year-old Frankie Fretini, trying to escape the grasp of the notorious school bully.  Frankie is accompanied by his 3 “pals in arms” namely:  Portly Brick, Brainiac Bookworm and Tomboy Extraordinaire Sam.  The trio find themselves entering the tent of a Gypsy fortune teller at a carnival when they are attempting to hide.  Desperate and with nowhere to turn, Frankie and his crew enter into an agreement with the fortune teller named Mala.  Having recognized Frankie as someone who has great untapped power within him, Mala guarantees their safety.  However, the price is that they are instantly captured by the crystal ball and transported back to medieval Italy.  It is here that Frankie and his group team up with the rest of their motley crew.  Together they will battle snakes, werewolves, and a variety of other creatures as they escort Frankie in hopes of helping him to fulfill his ultimate quest.  You see, Frankie is actually a witchslayer who is tasked with the killing of the evil witch Strega Devolo.  Strega has reaped terror on the land and has also held Mala’s sister captive for eons.  Will Frankie succeed in this seemingly impossible task?  Or will he and his friends be doomed to spend an eternity in this medieval land of sorcery and witchcraft?

Make no mistake, this is not a typical good versus evil theme.  While that motif certainly exists, it is a story which is more about the power of friendship and overcoming one’s own fears.  It is similar to an actual rite of passage in many respects.  To accomplish such a transition, the author weaves an incredibly thrilling, imaginative and emotional tale which quickly and thoroughly engages the reader.  The plot is full of exciting twists and turns as Frankie and his ragtag band inch closer to their final showdown with Strega the witch.  It is a fantastical adventure at its absolute best!

While the plot is exhilarating and engaging, the characters are really what take this novel to the next level.  Not only are they developed in great detail, but the intense bond between them is moving and inspirational at the same time.  There is also a great deal of banter and interaction between the various characters which is hilarious and revealing.  All of them experience significant growth as the story progresses.  Even the cowardly Knight Giacomo (who I found annoying and out of place at first), developed to such an extent that he became one of my personal favorite characters by the end of the novel.  Character development at its best!

When we are considering a fantasy novel, one cannot overlook the importance of setting.  The reader wants to escape reality but will only be able to truly do so if they can visualize and believe in the fantastical world as it is presented.  Rocissono very capably manages to immerse the reader in the fantasy world of medieval Italy.  Everything is presented in such a way that it is believable and totally “fits”.  He is able to depict the setting so it can be visualized and appreciated, but not lose the reader’s interest by adding excessive detail.  That can very frequently be a delicate balance to achieve.

I would recommend this story for a teen age group and up.  I do believe adults will love this story as well as it is so well written.  The story action flows exceeding well and is supported by figurative and delightfully flowing language.  Everything in this story seems to have a purpose and this ties the entire package together beautifully.

5 out of 5 Fantastical Stars for this one!