Magic can be both awesome and awful. And young Oscar, hand to Caleb, the first magician for generations in the Barrow, despite his knowledge of and respect for all the things magic can do, begins to wonder if perhaps magic doesn’t serve humans after all. Maybe it’s the other way around.
This is a fantasy story in which magic is kind of a fearful thing. This is a fantasy story with an unconventional (and not-too-obvious) villain. This is a fantasy story with frequent (if subtle and well-integrated) fairy tale allusions. This is a fantasy story that is lyrical and lovely and can be read as a modern parable about economic and environmental responsibility—and the stumbly, difficult journey through childhood (and life in general) for a person with autism. This is a fantasy story that invites the reader to enter a fully-rendered magical world with empathy and to see things a bit differently.
Seriously, the world-building here is phenomenal. I feel like I’ve been to the villages, the city, and the Barrow, right along with Oscar and his new friend Callie (the healer’s apprentice). Details describing what someone might see or hear or smell abound as do particulars about the rules that govern behavior between those who peddle magic and those who purchase it—and all of it has been woven subtly into the fabric of the text.
It’s a world I almost actually want to inhabit—at least, until things start going wrong.
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
Walden Pond Press, 2013
Illustrations by Erin Mcguire
And something monstrous is terrorizing the Barrow, tearing down trees, ripping up storefronts, and attacking residents.
Oscar and Callie do their best, on their own, to solve the mystery and help those who are suffering. But Oscar struggles daily, even moment-to-moment, with loneliness and confusion and anxiety about how “different” he is and how difficult it is to figure out how he should act or what he should say in every social situation he encounters. Ursu captures this all so beautifully. We all have moments we want to retreat to the cellar, as Oscar does, believing it’s the only place we’re of any use (or simply to hide from the big, confusing, and sometimes angry world). We’ve all felt odd, unwanted, or misunderstood some of the time. But Ursu challenges us to think about what it might be like to feel out-of-place all of the time. We are asked to step out of our comfort zones, just as Oscar must, to see things from a different perspective, to allow our preconceptions to be challenged, and to act.
Some final thoughts:
I am not a cat person, but this book almost makes me want to be. Really.
I love so many lines from this novel—these are two of my favorites:
“There is something in the magic we have that is greater than the magic we can do.”
“It was a beautiful lie that they had all been telling themselves—that you could have magic without monsters.”
Recommended for ages 9+.