Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Although he is a little odd, Oscar, 11, was nevertheless chosen from among all the other children at the orphanage to be a hand by Master Caleb, who is the first magician on Alethia in a generation and therefore, a very powerful person.  Ever since, Oscar has always been content living with his cat friends and working in the cellar of Master Caleb's shop, mixing his herbs and making charms and potions for him to sell or venturing out to the forest to find more herbs and flowers.  Oscar loved being in the the forest, and felt at home among the 5 wizard trees that protected the Barrow.  Although he may only be a hand, and unbeknownst to anyone, Oscar knows how to read.  At night, he often sneaks into his Master's library and spends the night reading.

One day, Master Caleb decides to take a trip to the continent.  While he is gone, Wolf, his apprentice is in charge.  Wolf delights in tormenting Oscar, but one day he disobeys the Master's order and goes off to the forest where he is killed by something very large and very hungry.

Now Oscar is in charge of the shop, but he has never been comfortable around people, has difficulty speaking to them or looking the in the eye.  Callie, the healer's apprentice, befriends Oscar tries to help him in the shop with his social skills, but she is worried because some of the privileged, perfect children who live in the Shining City of Asteri are beginning to show signs of something being very wrong with them.

Not only are the perfect children beginning to their mysterious illnesses, but to his dismay, Oscar discovers that things in his beloved forest are being destroyed.  Then Oscar remembers something he has read in one of Master Caleb's books about the wizards and why they became the wizard trees.  Are the children and the incidents in the forest related?  Between the two of them, can he and Callie figure out exactly what is happening and stop it?  And hand and an apprentice?

This is a very multilayered novel.  First there is the world that Oscar and Callie live in.  There is an island called Alethia and on it is the Barrow Village, where Oscar and Callie live and which is a place of magic.  There is a forest nearby where Oscar collects his supplies and beyond that his the plaguelands.  But there is also the city of Asteri, a perfect city that has no magic, but its perfection is protected by spells surrounding it.  All of this sits on the edge of an enormous sea.  I was pleased to find the world of Alethia rather easy to imagine, since I read an ARC which didn't have the picture of the map the real book has.

The illness of the children and the forest monster that kills Wolf and begins to destroy the Barrow are connected.  The connection worked for me, but some of the action around that was a bit too much and too vague.

I did like the friendship between Oscar and Callie and the way she took him in hand and taught him some social skills.  She was such an extroverted character, a nice contrast to Oscar.  Ursu very nicely allows who Oscar is to unfold and we never really know if he is autistic, has Aspberger's, is painfully shy, is painfully introverted, or has just become subservient because of the way he is treated.  I think Oscar should be seen by each reader through their own eyes and experience.  My painfully shy middle-grade self would have loved this book, as does my not quite as painfully shy adult self.

On the whole, this was an interesting novel and one I would definitely recommend to anyone who loves fantasy.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was received as an ARC from the publisher


  1. I thought it was gorgeously written too ... almost a parable. I was disappointed that it didn't win a Newbery honor!

    1. I was a little surprised at it not winning the Newbery, too. I always wonder how they choose a winning book from among so many good ones.


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