The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Dec 13, 2013

I follow several book blogs that regularly review advance copies of books. I like seeing what books I have to look forward to, but it can also be agonizing to read an intriguing review and not be able to read the book immediately but instead have to wait weeks (or even months) for it to come out.

Such was the case with this book.

As early as this summer, it was already receiving a fair bit of Newbery attention, but it wasn't officially released until the end of September. And then, of course, it wasn't like the library had it on its shelves the day afterward. So it felt like I had to wait an eternity before I finally got a copy (really, it was just a few months).

Although I would have preferred not waiting, I'm glad I did because this is some pretty good middle-grade fiction.

Oscar lives in the Barrow, just east of Asteri (aka, the "Shining City"). He is the hand of the great magician, Caleb, which basically means he does all of the menial tasks: gathering, drying, chopping, and storing herbs, as well as dusting and cleaning the shop. He is not an apprentice (which, in the hierarchy of the village, is definitely more respectable than a lowly hand) and probably never will be, for in spite of his affinity for plants, he is socially awkward and inept.

But then, strange things begin happening in the Barrow: businesses and the forest are destroyed overnight by an unseen, monstrous hand; the Shining children (from Asteri) are getting sick (which is NOT supposed to happen); Caleb and the magic smiths are leaving the Barrow for days and weeks at a time without explanation. Oscar would rather stay in his cellar surrounded by plants and cats and wait for the troubles to go away on their own, but Callie (the healer's apprentice) pushes Oscar to reach outside himself and do what no one else will to save the village and the city.

This was my first experience with Anne Ursu's writing, and I was absolutely enchanted.  Her prose is simple but sparkling. For example, "[Caleb] smiled his cloaking smile, and Oscar folded himself up into it." When an author can find a way to make a smile more than just a smile but an experience, something that I can feel and remember, I could keep reading forever. Here's another one:  "'And what?' She hit the t so hard it felt like a slap." And also this one: "'And,' Callie said, words tiptoeing up to him, 'what do you think?'" Some people think there is no place for fiction, but how can there not be when words like this have the power to make me think about thoughts and emotions and actions in new and vibrant ways? The story may be made up, but the new ways I feel connected to people are most definitely real. (Incidentally, I've been meaning to read Ursu's Breadcrumbs for awhile, and you can bet it's now going to the top of my list for January.)

Besides just the beautiful writing, this is an intricate story that explores the complex web of good vs. evil: What is really good? Who is really evil?, etc. So many of the characters (Caleb, Mister Malcolm, the Shining people) exhibit conflicting motives, desires, and ambitions--not with each other per se, but with themselves. For example, Mister Malcolm is a baker who used to be a magician. He is kind and generous (good). He abandoned magic because he felt like it was being used unwisely and selfishly (good).  He decides to leave the Barrow because its problems seem overwhelming (maybe not  exactly bad but also not noble), and he feels like the magic-crazed citizens are getting their due (kind of sad). Mister Malcolm has the potential of being a wise mentor, but he takes the cowardly route instead. He's definitely not the most complex character in the story, but I used him as an example because he demonstrates what I mean about the personal struggle between good and evil without giving away any major plot points.

I also loved the setting for this story: the country of Aletheia with its rich and mysterious history (wizard trees, the Plaguelands, unblemished children). There was an element of mystery mixed in with the magic and problems, and everything came together in a really stunning piece of writing.

And the good news? This book is available at your local library right now. No waiting required!

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