June 03, 2010


The Dreamer. By Pam Muňoz Ryan & Peter Sís. Scholastic. $17.99.

Shadow. By Jenny Moss. Scholastic. $17.99.

Unfamiliar Magic. By R.C. Alexander. Random House. $17.99.

     Magic is reliable – not in the real world, but in the worlds created in books for teenage and preteen readers. Authors continue to find new ways to explore the possibilities of magic, its meanings, and its relationship to everyday life in the world where their readers actually live. Pam Muňoz Ryan and Peter Sís present magic within a world with which most young readers will not be familiar. It is our world, more or less – the book is set in Chile – but it is our world with the sort of magical-realist twists that Jorge Luis Borges has made famous. The story centers on a young boy named Neftalí, who has always heard the call of a mysterious voice – making him an outsider not only among other children but also within his own family. What the voice is, what it wants and what Neftalí must do are the basic plot elements here, but the authors go far beyond the basics in the way they present the tale. There are simple but highly evocative illustrations scattered throughout the book and forming part of the narrative – illustrations so integral to the story that describing them undermines their effectiveness. For example, one shows a seascape with such words as “daydreamer,” “worthless” and “dim witted” written on the shore, and goes with two pages on which the only narrative words are, “Where will the waves take the debris abandoned in the freckled sand?” So this is a journey of self-discovery – a very ordinary and typical plot for a book for this age range – but it is handled with unusual sensitivity and beauty. Conventional elements abound, such as Neftalí’s problems with the school bully, Guillermo, who ends up wanting Neftalí to write a love letter on his, Guillermo’s, behalf to a girl – the same girl for whom Neftalí himself cares. There are also some distinctly adult concerns involving Neftalí’s uncle, a crusading newspaperman whose offices are burned by those he has been exposing; and here too there are lessons for the boy, when Uncle Orlando shows him that beneath the smoking ash of the ruins there are still glowing embers that can rekindle. For all its beauty, The Dreamer will be a touch too earnest and a bit too intensely sincere for some readers: it is a quietly meaningful book suitable only for those who will appreciate its unusual design and narrative structure.

     More conventional in its use of magic and story line, and therefore more accessible, Shadow is the story of an orphan girl who is virtually enslaved to a nasty young queen who, it has been prophesied, will die before she turns 16. Shadow ‘s role is to shadow the queen and make sure that does not happen – but as in any good fairy tale, mere mortals have no power over supernatural predictions. So Shadow finds herself, after the inevitable tragedy, in the care of Sir Kenway, a young knight who may or may not have been betrothed to the queen but who is now fleeing the castle as plots and counterplots come to fruition. Shadow herself is, of course, a mystery, knowing nothing of her parentage and not even knowing her real name. “None of it mattered. What did any of them matter to me? They had never treated me kindly. Why should I care?” But of course Shadow does care, and is irrevocably bound to the castle and its inhabitants for reasons she comes only gradually to understand. Standard characters from tales of magic abound here, such as Kenway’s wise-beyond-her-years little sister, who tells Shadow, “You have lovely eyes. …They are a little odd, but lovely. Like the sky right before nightfall. A deep blue, like that. …But not exactly like that. But they are beautiful, your best feature.” The book is filled with questions about what this or that occurrence means, where this or that person’s loyalty lies, and ultimately about what is going on in the land and where the young queen and Shadow fit into events. Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, Shadow learns who she really is and how she is crucial to the kingdom as “the union of nature and man.” Then she faces a series of further trials, at a higher political level than she has ever known, before eventually coming into her birthright – as readers will surely expect that she will. Shadow is a well-wrought novel and often an exciting one, but it is filled with conventional genre elements that rob it of surprise as the title character goes through her tribulations and emerges, as expected, triumphant. It is a book that readers who want more-grown-up versions of fairy tales will enjoy.

     A counterbalance to the earnestness and intensity of The Dreamer and Shadow comes in the form of Unfamiliar Magic, whose very title has a double meaning – referring not only to the spells with which young witch Desi is unacquainted, but also to the pet cat who is Desi’s mother’s familiar and in whose care Desi is left when her mom suddenly and mysteriously leaves. This is R.C. Alexander’s debut novel, a fact to which some of its predictability can be attributed. For example, it is obvious that Desi’s mom will not let her learn magic as Desi wishes; it is obvious that Desi will try things out on her own when her mother is not around; it is obvious that Desi will call up something she cannot (or almost cannot) handle; it is obvious that Cat will, however reluctantly, become her ally rather than her babysitter. And all these things do indeed happen. But Unfamiliar Magic has a freshness about the writing that helps overcome the stale elements of its plot. For example, one reason Desi gets into trouble is that the Book of Secrets that she tries to use to do magic mentions that there are four “paths to power,” while she knows of only two, so she wants to do some research, but “she knew the Web wouldn’t be any help. People like her mother were busily scouring any real info about magic off the Net as soon as it appeared.” Soon, Desi starts hearing calls from her missing mother – whom she cannot locate and whose reason for leaving she does not know. Cat dismisses them as dreams, but it is a foregone conclusion that Desi will turn out to be perceiving things accurately. It is also predictable that much of the mystery here will turn out to revolve around Desi’s father, whom Desi does not know: Desi’s mother says she left him because she was afraid of him. On the other hand, it is not predictable that a fire demon arguing for its freedom will tell Desi – who is understandably worried that the demon will burn the forest – “Wildfire is normal and natural. …Suppressing it wreaks havoc on the ecosystem.” In the long run, it is the offbeat elements and flashes of humor that rescue this book from conventionality and make its unsurprising elements – such as the unique importance that Desi turns out to have – of less consequence. It helps that Cat turns out to be quite a character, and that Alexander can write lines such as, “This isn’t the Dark Ages anymore. …Desi can learn her craft very well from me without dancing around fires, chanting nonsense, and sacrificing goats.” All these books about magical powers are, at one level, nonsense, but they do have entertainment value and, from time to time, some real-world, nonmagical lessons to teach about families, growing up, and finding out who you really are and what you can really do.

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