Series: Young Wizards #1
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on 1st June 2001
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Nita Callahan is at the end of her rope because of the bullies who've been hounding her at school... until she discovers a mysterious library book that promises her the chance to become a wizard. But she has no idea of the difference that taking the Wizard's Oath is going to make in her life. Shortly, in company with fellow beginner-wizard Kit Rodriguez, Nita's catapulted into what will be the adventure of a lifetime -- if she and Kit can both live through it. For every wizard's career starts with an Ordeal in which he or she must challenge the one power in the universe that hates wizardry more than anything else: the Lone Power that invented death and turned it loose in the worlds. Plunged into a dark and deadly alternate New York full of the Lone One's creatures, Kit and Nita must venture into the very heart of darkness to find the stolen, legendary Book of Night with Moon. Only with the dangerous power of the wizardly Book do they have a chance to save not just their own lives, but their world...
“Believe something and the Universe is on its way to being changed. Because you’ve changed, by believing. Once you’ve changed, other things start to follow. Isn’t that the way it works?”
At this point, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series has become something of a literary old sweater to me, just as Harry Potterhas been for most of my life. Reading it is warm, familiar, and comfortable, and I know that I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it no matter how well-worn the plot and its characters are.
So You Want to Be a Wizard works well because it has that spark that many books on the subject of sorcery tend to lack. It’s a feeling of actual magic: an excitement at the charms and spells at work that manages to capture the allure of making the impossible possible. Duane’s approach is especially effective because she takes a surprisingly mature route with her enchantments to contrast the ‘kid wizards’ concept: the use of mathematics, equations, and words to ask the intangible universe for something out of the ordinary.
It’s that word — ‘ask’ — that encapsulates what makes Nita and Kit’s adventure special: there’s a sweet, big-hearted optimism behind the worldbuilding that’s refreshing. Sure, there’s the requisite amount of drama and antagonism, but at the foundation of it all is a sacrosanct belief in the natural wonders of the world and a respectful management of its resources. Nita and Kit work through request and borrowing, not through taking or simple conjuring. In a story in which everything from the grass on the schoolyard field (“growgrowgrowgrowgrow”) to the car on the streetside is to some degree alive and capable of sentient conversation, this mutual appreciation is important. And there’s simply something truly magical about a young girl talking to her backyard tree about their time together in her childhood as she requests a wand from its branches, isn’t there?
“She tried to walk softly and wished the trees wouldn’t stare at her so.”
On the flip side of the metaphorical coin is that delightful absurdity that seems to be a requisite of ‘fun’ stories about wizardry. Rowling is arguably the reigning champion of this sort of thing, being able to juggle her storytelling weirdness with a sense of reasoning and logic that proves there to be a method to her fun, from her derivative wordplay to the thorough explanations of how her unusual culture operates. Duane, as it turns out, was pulling this off over a decade beforehand, crafting a system of magic that requires not only precise descriptions and theorems in an arcane language, but assorted junkyard catalysts as well — a chipped teacup, a battery, a pine cone, eight and a half sugar cubes. We also have the bread-and-butter concepts of a rousing fantasy adventure, from greedy dragons to Very Important Books, and a great sense of humor (see the above dialogue from your local plot of grass) to go right along with it. What more could you ask from a YA series?
So You Want to Be a Wizard, you see, hangs in that balance between ‘adult’ and ‘children’s’ literature so assuredly that it’s difficult to demand more from the book so long as your expectations aren’t unreasonable of the genre and demographic. Unlike, say, the first few Harry Potter novels, Duane is ambitious about her plotting and themes from the get-go, telling a fairly complex story about the end of the world, the demands and (sometimes extreme) dangers of responsibility, and the inevitable loss of friends. Yet the humor and sense of wonder is always there, alongside an emphasis on friendship and the delights of a youthful curiosity and enthusiasm. And Duane’s writing captures all of this well, simple but elegant as it is.
A big shout-out as well to the diversity shown in the cast. Our protagonist is a young woman who enjoys reading and astronomy. Her closest friend is a Hispanic classmate who is not immediately forced into having an underlying romantic attraction to her. Gender is never much of an issue here, really: Nita is discouraged from undertaking certain tasks not because she’s a girl, but because she is a child undertaking an enormous amount of responsibility. Kit does not treat her like some foreign creature or a target of (‘friendly’) ridicule, and in turn he is not expected to always save the day or remain ‘in control’ of a situation or his emotional expression. Neither is forced into the expected roles of their gender, as individuals or as a pair, and are instead free to simply be what they are: friends based upon appreciation and respect who are allowed to be kids despite their unusual circumstances.
We also have Tom and Carl: two senior wizards living together. They are likable, well-regarded in their community, and generally great characters. Are they a couple? Are they ‘just friends’? Business associates? Duane has addressed the topic before, and the answer is that it isn’t really meant to be our business. You could devote an entire review — several reviews — to dissecting this response and why it’s either admirable or a disservice to queer representation: the 80s equivalent of the ‘Dumbledore is gay’ debacle.
In any case, I’m very fond of Tom and Carl, despite how minor of a role they play in this particular book and how ambivalent their non-heterosexuality (or lack thereof) is. Reading — any kind of reading — can be frustrating when your own identity is either completely absent from fiction in general or is regulated to a very select number of unpleasant tropes. Remember, if you’re anything other than straight, culture tells us that you’re either doomed to spend your life miserable, be used as a cautionary tale that revolves solely around your sexuality, or, you know, die. Tom and Carl potentially represent something that I’m sure many of us would like more of: a happy and non aggressively-sexualized queer couple that isn’t there to Teach Us a Lesson in Acceptance.
Am I reading too much into their portrayal, given how vague their characterization is? Possibly. But you learn to take when you can get.
“And this was what being a wizard was about. Keeping terrible things from happening, even when it hurts. Not just power, or control of what ordinary people couldn’t control, or delight in being able to make strange things happen. Those were the side effects — not the reason, the purpose.”
I knock off half of a star for a few minor reasons. One is largely unfair to the book itself: having read the sequels, I know how much bigger and better the story gets as it goes, so this opening chapter feels relatively bare by comparison. The other is the fact that some details age the book in a jarring way: Nita’s being routinely beaten up by a classmate is downright uncomfortable in light of our drastically changed attitudes and responses towards bullying today, and the World Trade Center’s appearance later in the plot in sobering for obvious reasons. Granted, Duane has apparently updated the series recently to place its time frame closer to our own, but I’ve been stuck with the original version for good or ill over the years, so I can’t speak to its merits.
“Dear Artificer, I’ve blown my quanta and gone to the Good Place!”
So give it a try. You Harry Potter fans will likely enjoy it, and I promise you that it only gets better from here. You get to meet a white hole named Fred (technically ‘Khairelikoblepharehglukumeilichephreidosd’enagouni’), who is very nice, and a scarlet macaw named Machu Picchu who can predict the future. Fun stuff.