Friday, December 21, 2012
100 Books #123 - Diane Duane's SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD
Oh man, it's a good thing a certain someone who talked me into reading Harry Potter this year didn't show these to me until long after I'd done with Hogwarts, because Potter & co. would have suffered even more by comparison with these than they already did with the Greats.
As I found myself explaining to a work colleague who is trying to get her 13-year-old son to read more, among the many reasons Duane's Young Wizards books look to be better than Potter is that their would-be wizards are teaching themselves (with a lot of help from the natural world, which is all quite magical if you're just paying attention) instead of slaving over, e.g., potions in a student cauldron in a dreary classroom for a grade. I like the way Duane has conveyed the pleasures of learning and discovery rather than making the learning process seem like a dreary chore, a set of hoops the impatient student must jump through in order to get to do the cool stuff.
I also like the way Duane has situated magic in the world of Young Wizards. It's got a slight Jedi/Force feel to it in that the practice of magic is one of the things that keeps the universe working (the idea that humanity/intelligent life is the universe's consciousness trying to understand itself is a subtle theme), but in a very reasoned and scientific, rather than a mystical, way. Magic slows down entropy, if it's practiced by the right kind of people, by which is meant people who care enough to make the effort even if it costs them everything. And thus the universe can be safeguarded.
Magic, in this world, then, is a calling rather than a privilege, a practice to be undertaken alongside of, rather than instead of, the rest of one's life in the world. Which means there's no elitism to it, no us versus them mentality, despite the secrecy.*
That's not to say it's not quite a lot of satisfying fun for our two young heroes in this first novel, Nita and Kit. Both of them are nerdy little outcasts with a bent for book-learning (the scene in which Nita comes across this first novel's titular textbook is one every bookworm will recognize, a bit ruefully) and a need to exercise their talents, but of course that means both of them are ostracized according to their lights: the rather passive Kit is a wallflower, the more aggressive and active Nita gets beaten up a lot. But lest this start to sound like a magical Revenge of the Nerds, Nita is more interested in harnessing her budding powers to protect herself from damage and recover a treasured space pen than in tit for tat. And soon, when her spell to recover said pen brings a fascinatingly strange new presence into her and Kit's lives, she's got much more interesting stuff to think about than getting back at some bullies. Like getting to know the trees, especially the rowan tree she's been climbing in her whole young life, who tells her of how the trees have always been watching over and protecting humanity, since they were just another primate screaming in the branches -- and why humanity is worth protecting.
Too, this book does the best job of any I've seen since Fritz Lieber's Our Lady of Darkness of fulfilling the promise inherent in that oft misused genre name, urban fantasy. Here as in the Lieber, we get a true magic of cities, in a radiant and lively good aspect as well as in a creepy and malevolent evil one. And, rarity of rarities, the good aspect is every bit as interesting and vividly imagined and engaging as the evil -- and that's saying a lot, because the foe Nita and Kit and their white hole pal Fred (!) take on is quite possibly the most genuinely heartbreaking and terrifying dark lord I've encountered at least since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- and this being-or-nonbeing, the Starsnuffer, let me say, licks Voldemort and Sauron hollow, as his world is way more interesting and scary than Mordor could ever hope to be. The fire hydrants alone!
And so again I find myself asking, just as I did in my prior post, why the hell isn't this book more famous? Seriously, kids, check this stuff out. Diane Duane is amazevaries.
*I want to make a comparison. If Harry Potter is Big Bang Theory, with muggles standing in for nerds as the class to be either mocked/attacked or protected, but hardly ever respected in their own right (even as it pretends to be a sop to those nerds reading), then Young Wizards is Community.