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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Real Boy, written by Anne Ursu. Harper, 2013. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"He had the dream again. The sky, bright and blue, luring him in. The forest, empty of people, because they had all been taken already - except for Oscar, and Wolf in a sack at his feet. The wind pushed over the wizard trees, tearing the roots from the ground, leaving great mourning gashes in the soil. The roots gulped and gasped and grasped."

Oscar works with Master Caleb, a magician, on the island called Aletheia. He is not the only boy who works with Caleb; but, he is not an apprentice as Wolf is, he is a 'hand'. His days rarely change and he is fine with that. He likes order, and knowing what is expected from him. His work is to collect flowers and herbs for his master who, in turn, turns them into charms and potions that others buy from his shop. Many people look to Caleb for his wares. Wolf is a cruel bully who makes disparaging remarks about the 11 year old Oscar, causing distress and uncertainty for the young boy.

When he is not helping with the shop's work, Oscar loves and cares for a  collection of cats and spends as much time as he can n the magician's library, unbeknownst to Caleb. He loves his life in the cellar and back storeroom, and does all that is asked of him. Everything in Oscar's life has predictability, until his master goes away and Wolf is killed. All that is known about his death is that something large and hungry killed him. It is very unsettling to everyone, and causes Oscar to begin asking questions. Meeting Callie, the healer's apprentice, sets him on a new course from his usually quiet life. Callie is a force to be reckoned with, headstrong and unafraid.

First, there is Wolf's death, then the children of Asteri become sick. The island's healer has also gone to the continent with Caleb. Callie isn't sure how to help the children improve. Together, she and Oscar must find out what is happening. What about the plague that killed so many years ago? Why are there guardian trees and what happened to some of them? Why are the 'perfect' children not as perfect as expected? Is Oscar 'real'?

Oscar is a wondrous character. He lacks many social graces:

“I cannot understand what people mean when they talk,” he tells Malcolm, an ex-magician. “I am not . . . I’m not made of the same thing as everyone else.”

But, he is smart and has an incredible knowledge of plants and how they can be combined for spells and elixirs. He makes 'maps' of information that he collects in his head and then uses that stored knowledge when it is needed. His relationship with Callie grows stronger as the story unfolds, and she influences much of the action of the tale. So much changes for the very ordered Oscar, and Callie helps him to deal with those changes.

Anne Ursu has created a wondrous fantasy world, giving her readers a history of the island, the city, the residents and the magic that permeates is pages. Her characters are strong and real. Her writing is exceptional, and the story is challenging. It is worth reading every paragraph, every page, every fall in love with both Oscar and Callie, and to be with them as they tackle important issues, frightening situations and the many discoveries they make about their home... together:

"You don't have to yet. We can just worry about today."
"Yes," Oscar said. "I'd just like to worry about today."
This was not entirely true. He wanted to think about tomorrow, and a tomorrow after that, too, one where every day was certain, where he could see the perfect structure to it, where he could count the steps one by one - not live with this white fuzzy emptiness that was in his head. He'd always had surety, so much so that it never would have occurred to him to want it. He hadn't known things could be any other way."   

Bravo, Anne Ursu! This is a second unforgettable book from your exceptionally talented self.

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