Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

When an author takes common fantasy tropes and conventions, flips them on their heads, then tosses in fairy-tale twists creating a new race of beings, take notice. This is the best middle grade fantasy story I've read in 2014. The unpredictable plot, emotional arc of the protagonist, layered themes, gorgeous writing, and excellent pacing blurred my expectation of how a typical fantasy story plays out. Scattered throughout my writing notes are lines, "Oh, oh, oh! I did not see that coming!" or "great twist!" It is such a delight to be surprised and it happened so many times I couldn't put the book down. Don't pass on this novel that will be released September 24.

Caleb, the greatest magician in the Barrow, owns a magic shop getting help from two assistants: Wolf, his apprentice with magic talents, and the nonmagical orphan Oscar, his hand. The Barrow is a forest of ancient wizard trees that feed the soil with magic surrounding the enchanted walled city of Asteri meant to protect citizens after a plague killed the townspeople hundreds of years ago. Oscar works in the cellar making magical potions with herbs, a task considered too menial for the magician's apprentice, Wolf, who bullies and mistreats Oscar.

When the city children become ill while Caleb is away and a monster starts attacking people in the forest, Oscar tries to deal with it aided by his friend, Callie, another nonmagical person who works for a Healer. Already the trope of the hero with superior brains, muscle, or magical powers is missing and while Oscar grows into the role of saving the city, he's painfully shy and socially awkward, to the point that I wondered if he was autistic or abused. Callie, his newfound friend, helps him deal with people and helps him make friends. She is a kind, giving, no-nonsense girl who pesters Oscar even when he tries to sink back into his uncommunicable shell.

The villain is not your fantasy-type Dark Lord. He's more misguided and I didn't even know he was the bad guy until quite a ways into the plot. He's eliminated quickly in the story compared to a typical fantasy before the story takes a fairy tale twist that made me think Oscar's social interaction problems might not be autism at all. Later, I wondered if the villain was "magic" in general and not a person. Nothing fits in a neat genre box in this tale. Oscar also reminds me more of a hero found in Grimm's fairy tales that run off into the enchanted forest as a way of dealing with issues. This blurring of fantasy and fairy tales makes the story unpredictable and quite fun to read.

Not that this is surprising. Anne Ursu blended realistic fiction and fairy tales in her previous book, Breadcrumbs, that has a basketful of references to children's books and fairy tales. The Real Boy follows the same vein except the references are sprinkled throughout and names not given directly, meaning readers have to make connections on their own. I'm hesitant to discuss the fairy tale aspect because I don't want to give away the terrific plot twists, but I think it's safe to mention Wolf and Bonnie, who wears a red cloak to the likes of Little Red Riding Hood. What happens to them made me think of the woodcutter and they way it ties in with the wizard trees is funny if not gruesome. I don't know how many young readers will make the connection but one thing I like about Ursu's writing is that it appeals to adults and children. She's so steeped in folklore it oozes in her stories; I think she has fairy blood or is related to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.

The emotional arc of Oscar is well-written with him going from painfully inept while interacting with others to learning to say the right thing. We all go through this phase, but it is particularly difficult to learn as a youngster where peers are easily insulted and friends can shun for minor offenses. Callie is the type of friend we all hope for, one who helps Oscar, is slow to offense and when she is insulted is willing to forgive and move on. Oscar grows up each time he interacts with Callie slowly becoming more personable. I love how he learns to apologize to Callie and does it with a question mark. He's not sure what she wants at first and becomes more sure as the story progresses. Oscar also can't read peoples faces. "If only Oscar spoke face." Eye rolling completely baffles him and by the end of the story he's confidently rolling his eyes at Callie.  Any reader will identify with Oscar's small steps outside his comfort zone. "The shelves were so very much taller than he could even dream of being, and Oscar firmly believed people shouldn't go any higher than they already were." When Callie admits her weakness the pair team up and build on each others strengths. Oscar does reach for those "shelves" eventually and I was rooting him each step of the way.

Some adults command Oscar to look them in the eye and put him down for being odd. The words hurt Oscar. Other adults show that they care and are concerned about Oscar. I would have liked a bit more development on the greedy adult leaders in the Barrow who were selling magic for money to others in the continent. I had a few questions whether or not the same products that were being sold to the city people (the big expensive product - I don't want to give it away). I wasn't sure how or if the Healer fit in with Caleb. Also, Malcolm is kind to Oscar and represents actions of a nonmagical adult, but I wanted a bit more on his interest with Oscar to the point that he makes his generous offer. It shows that Oscar is desirable and wanted by an adult, but I wasn't sure what was motivating Malcolm. These questions are minor and I should really reread the story to catch more details and see if some of the questions are there only I missed them as I blazed through the story. That's my flaw - I am not detail-oriented. And I have too many books on my to read pile to go back and reread it.

The writing is gorgeous and I kept writing down favorite lines to the point it looked like I was rewriting the story. I had to force myself to stop. "The wind pushed over the wizard trees, tearing the roots from the ground, leaving great mourning gashes in the soil. The roots gulped and gasped and grasped. The gashes in the ground grew under his feet; the wind battered his body." Or "Whenever Callie said something to a customer, he took the words and placed them on a map in his mind. On When a customer approaches he put a pin that read How may I assist you? No one else needed to do this. No one else needed lessons on how to be a person." The glass house and what happened to it is a nice symbol of this change in Oscar as he learns to understand humans.  I remember trying to learn the same thing when I got a waitressing job as a 14-year-old. We all need these lessons but Oscar doesn't realize it.

Multiple themes layer this story. I particularly liked the insatiable hunger of magic and people and how it parallels our own history regarding the destructive side of commercialism and the environmental crisis as a result of poor stewardship and greed. Oscar must take drastic measures to restore balance to the earth just like we have had to in the past, present, and future. In addition, the city people attempt to use magic creating a Utopia where there is no suffering. Oscar calls this "a beautiful lie" that is unobtainable. Oscar discovers that the underlying problem is fear in the townspeople. Once he realizes this, he discovers that he must face his internal fears as well; that just like the townspeople are stymied, so is he.  When he gives Sophie his carved cat, it symbolizes his release of his own fears; his fears of meeting people, being unwanted, and making friends. The human condition is full of uncertainty and each person has to learn to live with that moving beyond the crippling effects of fear.

I have one more favorite line to share. Toward the end Oscar writes Callie a note. "He looked at the note. Writing it had taken an eternity, and by all rights the words should have transformed into poetry somehow." How true. Writing is not easy for most - moi included. I was disappointed Breadcrumbs wasn't a Newbery contender and hope to see The Real Boy recognized for its high quality. Add this to your list of must reads.

5 Smileys

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