September 13, 2018

(+++) MAGICS

From the Films of Harry Potter: The Wand Chooses the Wizard. By Christina Pulles. Illustrations by Karen Viola. Scholastic. $19.99.

Estranged. By Ethan M. Aldridge. Harper. $21.99.

     A cleverly designed, well-packaged book that is thin on content but mostly makes up for it through style, The Wand Chooses the Wizard is a celebration of the technology of our world as a method of evoking the magic of J.K. Rowling’s in the Harry Potter books – or, more accurately, the movies made from those novels, since scenes from the films are the primary visual elements of this book. The text assumes reader familiarity with the overall story and with the specific films through which it is told: the book will be easy to follow for fans of the movies, but no more than a not-very-clear once-over-lightly for anyone else. However, it is unlikely that anyone but a solid fan of the films will be interested in the book, since its main attraction is the sturdy plastic wand bound into the back cover, and the clever electronics that make the wand interact with the book itself. The battery-powered wand is complemented by battery-powered symbols in the book. Each symbol shows the way the wand is supposed to be moved when invoking a specific spell – and readers who follow the instructions and then touch the wand to the indicated spell will hear the spell’s activating word spoken aloud through a speaker positioned next to the row of spell names. Each spell – Expelliarmus, Expecto Patronum, Accio, Ascendio, Stupefy, Lumos and Reducto – is explained within the book’s text, and the film stills show examples of scenes in which the spells appeared during the movies. The book’s title reflects one of the themes of the film and of Rowling’s books: wizards may decide how to use their wands and what choices to make about the alliances they form and at whose disposal their wands are placed, but they cannot choose the wands themselves. The Wand Chooses the Wizard means just what it says, in this book and in the Rowling universe: wands are alive and aware in their own way, and they select the wizards to whom they will attach themselves. This is in fact a plot point of the novels and films, since Harry’s wand and that of Lord Voldemort both contain at their core a feather from the same phoenix – an indication that the two antagonists are bound to each other at the deepest possible level. The book’s text does make this point, but does not dwell on it; indeed, the text is brief and explanatory and does not dwell on any topic at length. But it is effective at presenting information on the way magic is channeled through wands in the Harry Potter universe – and thus it invites readers of the book to enter that universe, however briefly and imperfectly, by making the spell-casting motions specified in the films and hearing the words of the spells spoken as they are in the movies. It is a clever book – scarcely profound, but well done as a blend of narrative and invitation to partake, however imperfectly, of the wonders of a world where magic is real.

     Magic is also real and foundational in the graphic novel Estranged. And here as in the Harry Potter books, it exists side-by-side with the everyday, nonmagical world. In Ethan M. Aldridge’s imagination, access to the World Below comes through New York City subway tunnels – a neat and slightly amusing notion that is, in fact, one of the few humorous elements of a book that is intended to be dark. But Estranged is not quite as dark as all that, largely because its superficial and somewhat incoherent narrative never matches its excellent illustrations. It starts as a modern prince-and-pauper story, or more precisely, since magic is involved, a changeling story, in which a baby from the World Below has been exchanged for a human child – and both babies, fae and human, have grown to be the age of the preteens for whom the book is intended. The complication comes when, out of nowhere, an evil fae named Hawthorne appears and turns the king and queen of the World Below into rats, then takes over the throne. The human child, who has never been given a name and is simply called the Childe, escapes but has nowhere to go – so he decides to venture into the World Above and hopefully get help from the fae child for whom he was exchanged. That child does have a name, Edmund, and the meeting of the two boys – who look identical when Edmund uses magic to disguise his appearance, as he usually does – leads to predictable complications of the where-do-I-belong variety. There is little that is unusual in the two boys’ uncertainties and their eventual decision to remain in the worlds where they were born rather than those in which they grew up: most of the excitement and intrigue in Estranged comes through other characters. Edmund’s older sister, Alexis, proves to be strong and adaptable – if a little too na├»vely accepting of the bizarre – when she follows the boys to the World Below. Even better is Whick, a golem made for the Childe in the shape of a human-sized and human-appearing candle: he has surprising powers and insights and the endearing characteristic of being stopped in his tracks anytime the flame atop his head goes out. There is also a witch who is thoughtful and intelligent as well as malevolent, and an impressive dragon that proves important late in the book. But despite some attractive characters, the narrative often stumbles. For example, Aldridge makes much of the witch giving the boys something to help them defeat Hawthorne, but the object is lost before the final battle, rendering the buildup of its importance moot; and the item that does eventually make it possible to defeat Hawthorne comes into Edmund’s hands accidentally (fast readers will miss the panel in which this happens) – and how Edmund knows what it is and how to use it is never explained. Estranged is, however, beautiful to look at; and for many graphic-novel fans, that will be enough to make up for the clunkiness of its magic-laced storytelling.

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