First off, the Christmas thing. Being the 29th book in the Magic Tree House series, there's a good chance the audience is starting to lose interest at this point. However, Christmas titles always make for good presents. Maybe if kids get this book as a present it will renew their interest. But the book doesn't instill a lot of warm Christmas feeling. There's a knight near the beginning who's dressed in red and green, then at the end there's a Christmas celebration. In the middle of the book, I'd forgotten that it was even supposed to be Christmas. It could have been any Magic Tree House book, except for one thing— which brings me to my 2nd point.
The fantasy thing. The series even has "magic" in the title. I shouldn't be bothered that Jack and Annie visit a fictional place and time. Yet I am. In earlier books Osborne wrote more along the lines of historical fiction, with an educational bent, as Jack and Annie encountered dinosaurs, George Washington, Inuit, and so on. While the treehouse may have been fantastical, and another crucial character (Morgan le Fay) was borrowed from Arthurian legend, it all seemed like an excuse; a cool frame to hook the kids in, but the idea was to teach stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with books for entertainment sake, or that kids can't learn from legends, but visiting a mythical realm 29 books into a series seems out of place. Clearly Osborne herself recognizes this might be an issue for some readers, even having Morgan address the concern directly:
"On all your other journeys, you visited real places and times in history," said Morgan, "Camelot is different."Her subsequent defense is vague and nonsensical. But then when she dresses the kids up in an invisibility cloak, the whole premise becomes even more suspect. Granted, as Osborne writes in a note at the end, such cloaks popped up in Arthurian legends quite often, but the subtext here is "J.K. Rowling didn't invent the invisibility cloak, so back off." Still, it's hard not to think that Osborne, her publishes, or both weren't merely trying to capitalize on Rowling's success in revitalizing the fantasy market for kids.
All would be forgiven if the book was at least well written. I could ignore previous Magic Tree House books, I could ignore the Potter series, if the story was engaging. I did like the longer format better. Prior to this one, the books were shorter, and as I remarked earlier this year when I reviewed Night of the Ninjas, the adventure came first. I won't go as far as saying Christmas in Camelot is character driven, but I did get a better sense of protagonists Jack and Annie than I had before. (In a nutshell, Jack is the cautious one, Annie is impulsive.) But, the kids seem to ease through the adventure despite the fact that supposedly great knights had failed before them. I'm still not quite sold on the book at this point.
But my son enjoyed it. He pushed me to read more than just one chapter each night, so clearly he was caught up in the story. So is Osborne forgiven? Well, even my 7-year old son thought the invisibility cloak was a bit much. I'd say forgiven, but not entirely.