THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu – Review by Linda Urban

I had a difficult time writing this review.  One reason for this is that my son kept taking the book from me.  He is eight.  He loves books about magic and adventure.  He was sucked in by the very first paragraph.  Who wouldn’t be?  In case you don’t have a copy of the book there handy now, I’ll share it with you.

 

The residents of the gleaming hilltop town of Asteri called their home, simply, the City.  The residents of the Barrow – the tangle of forest and darkness that encircled the bottom of Asteri’s hill like a shaowy moat – called the Asteri  the Shining City, and those who lived there the shining people.   The Asterians didn’t call themselves anything special, because when everyone else refers to you as the shining people, you really don’t have to do it yourself.

 

Ms. Ursu knows how to set a mood, doesn’t she?  My son and I talked about how magical that first paragraph is – how it makes you lean in, waiting to hear what’s next, but how you also relax somehow, certain that you’re in good hands.  It’s a narrator you trust to tell you a great tale, and with a bit of wry humor, too.

Of course, what really got my son hooked was Oscar.

My son has taken up and set down plenty of books that are about his favorite magical subjects because they didn’t have a character he wanted to spend time with, but right from the start he cared about Oscar.  I asked him why.  Oscar is small (like my son) and smart (ditto) and a scared (which happens to all of us) – but most importantly, he has a kind heart.  We talked about how the reader discovers this.

Aletheia, the country in which Oscar lives, was once ruled by wizards who were marvels at steering its magic.  Over time, the wizards died out, replaced by lesser sorcerers who were in turn replaced by magicians, and who themselves were replaced by magic smiths.  Only one magician remains – Caleb, who runs a shop where the City people stop daily for packets of herbs and amulets and other magical bits.  When The Real Boy opens, Caleb sends his frightening apprentice Wolf (“sometimes the world is an unsubtle place” says the narrator) down to the cellar where the boy Oscar manages the pantry of herbs and powders.  Finding they are fresh out of raspberry leaves (to bring love), Wolf snarls at Oscar to substitute walnut leaves, which do the opposite.  Oscar is terrified of Wolf, but he risks the apprentice’s wrath to make instead a packet of passionflower and verbena  “which at least would not cause active harm.” It is a small rebellion, but my son said it told him a lot about Oscar right from the start.

Oscar intrigued for other reasons.  My son doesn’t know much about autism, so he didn’t characterize Oscar as a grown-up or a clinician might.  Instead, he noticed how much Oscar thrived on predictable order and how much satisfaction got from the neat rows of the garden, the full shelves of the pantry, and his routines.    My son also felt right away how harrowing it was for Oscar to not quite understand all the gestures and expressions of the people who came into the shop demanding magical goods.  Most importantly, my son knew this: Oscar is a boy who has feelings and sympathy and care for others, even when it seemed to the people around him that he wasn’t listening or was too dumb to understand.  And even though there was magic all around Oscar, my son was beginning to see that when it comes to people, herbs and incantations have their limits.

My son has not yet noticed that there is a blurb from me on the back of this book.   Again, I’ll assume that you don’t have the book in hand and tell you what the blurb says:  “Anne Ursu has created a brilliant fantasy, alive with the smells and sights and sounds of a place both familiar and strange – but the true magic of The Real Boy lies in the powerful friendship that grows between Callie and Oscar.  A joy to read.

I stole this book from my son while I typed this, and he hasn’t gotten to meet Callie yet, nor experience the particular magic of their friendship.  I know he is going to like Callie, for she also has a kind and generous heart.  Not to mention a brave one.

The friendship between Callie and Oscar is sealed when they meet a boy from the shining City who asks for help.  The boy cannot remember who he is.  He cannot remember the woman who says she is his mother.  He is as beautiful and perfect and wealthy as all of the children of the City  – but his memories and personality seem to be disappearing.  Noting that the magician Caleb seemed unable to help, Callie says she wishes she could.  It’s a wish that Oscar silently joins her in . . . and the adventure begins.

So many wonderful plot twists and turns that await my son in The Real Boy.  Though he keeps asking, I won’t even give my son hints about those twists, because that masterful storyteller quality of the book is often at its best during these moments and I don’t want to spoil any of it.  I won’t spoil it for you, either.  But I’ll tell you this much – Oscar is a hero who you will love.  You’ll watch him grow and change and struggle and triumph and risk everything . . . and well, I’m not spoiling things, remember?

I don’t think I’ll spoil anything, though, by telling you that this is a magnificent, edge of the seat book that deserves to be read aloud.  The language, the pacing, the wonderful wit deserve the echoes that a classroom or a bedside provide.  It is also an endlessly discussable book.   I’m giving The Real Boy back to my impatient son now, and then it will be my turn to be impatient.  I can’t wait to hear what he thinks about it.  I know that he – and you – will love it.

Linda Urban is the award-winning author of three novels (The Center of Everything, Hound Dog True, and A Crooked Kind of Perfect) and a picture book illustrated by Henry Cole (Mouse was Mad).  She writes early in the morning, gives workshops for kids and adults at schools and libraries as often as she can, and reads in all the times in between.  Two new books are on the horizon: Little Red Henry, a picture book with illustrations by Madeline Valentine, and Milo in Ogregon, a funny fantasy novel.  Both should be published in 2015.