Young Wizards Books 1-5

 

Every now and then, I find myself trying to explain to someone why I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter series. I still haven’t gotten good at this explanation, probably because I usually change the subject before the other person decides I’m an elitist snob who is trying to over-think their simple pleasures. When I do go into details, I try to explain that it feels like Harry Potter just throws in world-building elements because they are amusing or useful at the time, with no thought for how they fit in to the greater series. It’s not that I’m intentionally nitpicking it, but if I really like a series, the world will keep living on in my head. And it breaks the spell when I repeatedly realize that a conflict from one book could have been resolved easily if the characters had just remembered to use a spell or character from a previous book.

Sometimes, instead of just walking away, the person asks me what alternative I’d recommend to Harry Potter. Usually, I tell them about Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. Unlike Harry Potter, these books kept kept a foothold in my imagination for years after I read them.

When I discovered the series, there were only three books, and the final one seemed meant as the end of a trilogy. I was happy to discover recently that the series continued after all, and is now up to nine books. I got the first five for Christmas a year ago, and I began re-reading them. It was exciting, but also a little worrisome. Would these live up to the standards that had been set by almost two decades of nostalgia? Short answer: they did sometimes, but disappointed me at other times. They probably aren’t the Harry Potter killers I remembered, but I can definitely recommend them as good young adult fantasy books.

The key to my fascination with the series was the way it portrayed magic. All spells are based on “The Speech”, a language that describes reality on such a fundamental level that saying something can actually make it true. This isn’t a completely new idea, but I don’t know of any other stories that fully embraced the logical extremes of the concept. Naturally, something like The Speech would be very rigorous and almost mathematical, like a natural programming language. Characters pause briefly to double-check the others’ work, or to calculate how much air they will need to bring with them to the moon, and the novels manage to emphasize this unique approach without ever feeling like a boring slog through math. I suspect that these books could function as a test to pick out budding computer programmers, because the depictions of magic don’t feel too out of place with the sort of thinking I do every day at work. These elements are probably subtle enough that they won’t annoy non-programmers; Instead, those people will probably just find the descriptions amusing in much the same way as Harry Potter, and not worry about the details.

The series has another aspect that my memory minimized, though. Wizards are the instruments of “The Powers”, a pantheon of gods described vaguely enough to keep from offending most religious readers. If a wizard finds him or herself in a dangerous situation, they can trust that they were meant to be there and that their new mission is serving a greater will. The books don’t say that we are pre-destined, but their version of “free will” comes across firmly as the choice to either reject or fulfill your purpose. Doing what you are meant to may sometimes be hard, but as long as people accept their purpose, Life will win out. The philosophy is vaguely New Agey and comforting, and even though it isn’t my worldview, I’ve certainly enjoyed books that I disagreed with more. However, this attitude is jarring when the books otherwise treat the universe’s rules as logical and mathematical. I can’t reconcile a system in which I can “program” the world around me with a system in which gods are actively directing me. Likewise, most books end with a visit to “Timeheart”, where everything you love lives on forever and cannot be harmed even by the forces that want to destroy the universe. This assurance that everyone will be cared for diminishes the threats.

In this series, everything is alive and aware to some extent – animals, plants, even cars and doorknobs. Making a solid walkway between rooftops involves “talking” to the air, and a sentient star is a major character in the first book. For the most part, this works to good effect: The wizards still spend much of their time in our mundane world, but their new awareness of the life all around them gives the real world a magical touch. (I can vouch that a child who reads these books will be able to imagine the magic in the world very easily.) It also creates a continuity between the different scenes: When the wizards do rush off to a distant planet or another dimension, those fantastical places still behave by the same rules that were established for the Earth. As cartoonish as you may expect talking birds and flowers to be, this actually does feed into a logical, consistent portrayal of a universe infused with magic.

Of course, all these living creatures and objects are also part of the system that bugged me, in which life must work together and accept its role in things. For example, in the first book Nita (one of the two protagonists) unexpectedly discovers that she can talk to the tree she had been climbing and reading under her whole life. Nita is afraid the tree will be angry at the way humans have polluted and deforested the world for years, but the tree gently reassures her that there are no hard feelings. It was in humanity’s nature to grow and take its rightful place in the world. This is a suspiciously easy way out of a difficult topic; It is a wizard’s purpose to protect and nurture Life, and the series frequently makes a stand against pollution, but when it comes right down to it, humans’ manifest destiny is not questioned.

This series raises an interesting question for me as a reviewer. It contains elements that I love, but also others that frequently jolt me out of the story. Obviously, Duane intended to have this mix in the books, and I’m sure many readers will love the parts that I merely tolerated. My reviews for the books have to reflect my biases, though I tone them down somewhat when I can recognize that something is definitely well-made even if it didn’t appeal to me. (Likewise, the books don’t get bonus points for the way I loved them when I was younger; I based my opinions on what I think now.) In the end, though, the most important thing for me to do is to try to explain my biases, so that you can figure out how much your experience will match mine.

Following are reviews of the first five books in the series. There are minor spoilers for everything after the first one, but I do not believe there is anything that would detract from a new reader’s experience.


So You Want To Be A Wizard cover

So You Want To Be A Wizard

 

 

So You Want To Be A Wizard: This book introduces us to Nita and Kit, and introduces them to the world of wizardry. The title comes from a mysterious book they find, which starts out as a simple primer but soon morphs into a thorough, larger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside manual of everything they need to know. This “manual” is hard to accept sometimes, as it manages to add new chapters whenever they need the information and even provides real-time updates about other wizards around the world. As I said above, it’s difficult for me to accept this level of guidance in a system that should be progressing with the cold efficiency of a computer program.

However, the adventure they have will excite the imagination of any young fantasy fan, while being informed by enough scientific tidbits to make it feel somewhat grounded. Nita and Kit find themselves stranded in an alternate universe that has been remade in the vision of the “Lone Power”. He is the analog to the Devil, who introduced to universe to death, and, by extension, hate and entropy. While I complained that the series’ “Life will win” attitude rings false, I do have to admit that this connection between personal death and the slow death of the universe is a masterful stroke, and it defines this series’ unique cosmology.

So You Want To Be A Wizard balances a strong, exciting story with all the world-building needed to establish a new series.

Grade: B+


Deep Wizardry cover

Deep Wizardry

Deep Wizardry: After the first novel literally opened up an entire multiverse to explore, the sequel makes an unexpectedly bold move by restricting itself to the Earth. Specifically, it sends Nita and Kit into an underseas adventure, exploring territory that is associated more with nature documentaries than with fantasy. The conflict also shifts from the epic to the more personal; The wizards agree to assist an elaborate ritual in order to shut down the latest incursion of the Lone Power, and Nita discovers too late that her role in this ritual will require her death. The story covers her shock, bargaining, and eventual acceptance as she learns the true price of dedicating herself to a greater good.

 

When I read this as a child, Deep Wizardry was the one I rushed through to get to the space scenes of the next book. That meant that it was still a surprising discovery for me as an adult: This truly is a great book. The oceans are full of mysteries and wonders, and Duane describes these real places with the kind of fascination that is usually applied to fantasy kingdoms. I mentioned above that one of this series’ strengths is the way it applies magic to the world around us, instead of having the characters leave the mundane world for a “better” one. If so, this book is Exhibit A for that quality. Nita’s personal plot is incredibly well-done, too. Years ago, I dismissed it as yet another story that pays lip service to the idea of sacrifice even though it ultimately protects the hero. In truth, Nita’s journey is incredibly emotional and honest, and Duane never cuts any corners that would give the impression that she’s not taking her hero’s sacrifice seriously.

Deep Wizardry is a little-known gem of young adult literature.

Grade: A-


High Wizardry cover

High Wizardry

High Wizardry: In contrast to Deep Wizardry, this was my favorite of the three books I knew years ago, but it disappoints me now. It features a new wizard whose magical manual is a computer rather than a book (hey, I love computers!) The adventure consists of a high-speed chase across hundreds of planets (hey, I love space!) These trappings fascinated me at the time, but the book didn’t have as many of the deeper elements of the first two books.

 

The computer manual is difficult for me to accept. The first two novels carefully established that the magic manual may be extremely helpful, but in the end it’s just providing information that the wizard must use. With the computer, magic is simply a matter of typing “help” at the command prompt and then choosing the appropriate program. (Later, it turns out that the computer has a speech mode, and even typing is unnecessary.) Sure, later books in the series demonstrate that the computerized spells still need careful consideration and tweaking the appropriate variables, but there is very little of that here. The magic feels much more like the hand-waving variety used by most series instead of the serious, thought-out type the first two books demonstrated.

Without the mathematical magical system to keep me interested, other flaws jump out more. If I remember correctly, this is the book that makes some hard-to-accept statements about the world we live in. Approximately 1% of the Earth’s population are potential wizards, and yet the world remains unaware of magic. When you have that many people running around changing reality, and apparently each wizard will let the secret leak to a few non-magical relatives or friends, it’s hard to believe that the population in general wouldn’t find out about wizardry. Further, our entire world only has five wizards who have reached the Senior Advisory level, and yet two of them have live within walking distance of Nita and Kit. (And they have extensive time for Nita and Kit’s problems, given that they are responsible for the millions of wizards who make up 1% of North America’s population.)

It surprised me to have such a different reaction to this book than I did twenty years ago. I wonder if I should return to it in a couple years to see if my opinion is consistent.

Grade: C


A Wizard Abroad cover

A Wizard Abroad

A Wizard Abroad: I found this book to be similarly disappointing. After taking on parallel universes, the sea, and other planets, this one sends our heroes to Ireland. It’s not a bad idea, and I expected Duane to portray the magic of this place in much the same way Deep Wizardry did for the sea. I found it less convincing, probably partly because Ireland has such a different magic system than America does. Irish magicians don’t use a physical manual; Instead, the spirit of Ireland directly talks to them to provide the information they need. This was something I accepted with the whale wizards in Deep Wizardry, but it seems less believable with other humans. Just knowing whatever spells you’ll need to use doesn’t match my picture of programmer-style wizards who need to study and then apply that knowledge. Normal people in Ireland are more likely to be aware of wizardry, of course, which makes the average American’s ignorance of magic more suspect. Even weirder, Ireland’s long history means that ancient spells are still resonating everywhere, and new ones may interact with them in chaotic ways. That idea makes sense in the context of the Young Wizards‘ universe, but the upshot is that Irish wizards are strictly forbidden from casting spells without oversight from higher up. Who would’ve expected Ireland to feel less magical than the United States?

 

There is a threat that must be faced down, but it never has the urgency of the Lone Power’s attacks in the first three books. This may be partly because High Wizardry felt like the logical conclusion of a trilogy, and Duane was searching for a new source of threats for this next novel. It also doesn’t help that, since the wizards can’t cast spells safely, their missions have more to do with hunting down MacGuffins than with actually taking magic power into their own hands.

Grade: C-


The Wizard's Dilemma cover

The Wizard's Dilemma

The Wizard’s Dilemma: I’m very glad that I was given these five books at once, because after two disappointing books in a row, I’m not sure that I would have chosen to go out and buy this one. However, this fifth novel restored my faith in the series, pitting our programmer-heroes against very human conflicts reminiscent of Deep Wizardry.

 

Nita and Kit are separated for much of the book, partly due to the stresses that come from growing up and long-term relationships, and partly due to an argument over a complex spell. The descriptions of this spell (which will help a nearby bay to continually cleanse its waters of pollution) and their arguments over the different approaches each person favors remind me strongly of computer programming. While not every book to date affirmed my childhood memories, there is no doubt in my mind that Duane was inspired by computer languages for this book’s description of the Speech.

Separated, each character is given their own adventure. Kit explores a mysterious new universe that seems to give him the power of creation without the cost or complexity of magic: This is an interesting mystery, though it is never fully resolved. I hope a future book does it justice. Nita, meanwhile, is put through another emotional wringer: Her mother is suddenly diagnosed with a serious, late-term cancer. To save her, Nita must learn a more extreme version of reality-warping magic than most wizards ever deal with.

Nita’s family scenes are emotional and effective, even if they never reach the same level that Deep Wizardry conveyed. This book provides a new source of tension, though: The Lone Power offers Nita a literal deal with the devil that could save her mother. The previous books frequently said that the Lone Power is seductive and subtle, but this is the first time that our heroes are overcoming temptation instead of just fighting him. I liked this part of the plot, though I never felt that it got the chance to fully develop: Despite the book’s title, this “dilemma” doesn’t begin until the final 100 pages. Nevertheless, it fleshes out a long-overdue corner of the Young Wizards cosmology.

This book seemed front-loaded with all the stuff I do like — magic as reality’s programming language and new mysteries about the way everything works — and catches up at the end with the things I don’t — it’s important to have faith that Life will win out, and of course mundane people can get in touch with their own magic without any training at all. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it. Not many authors can mix a believable magic system with a genuinely human struggle. I’m looking forward to continuing with this series.

Grade: B


Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: