Monday, July 22, 2013

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

From the title of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, I was expecting a Pinocchio retelling. It's not that, but there are slight echoes of Pinocchio within the story.

Oscar is a magician's servant -- not an apprentice, even, just a hired hand who spends his days tending the gardens, grinding up spell ingredients, and sweeping the floor. His master Caleb is charming and enigmatic; Caleb's apprentice Wolf is a reprehensible bully. But mostly Oscar doesn't mind -- he spends his days in his basement workroom or in the surrounding forest, or with his cats. He understands plants and cats much better than humans. Then one day, while Caleb is out of town, Wolf leaves Oscar in charge of the shop -- a task for which Oscar is ill prepared. Even worse, some unfortunate circumstance befalls Wolf, and Oscar finds himself tending the shop for days on end, waiting for Caleb's return. Callie, a young apprentice Healer, gives Oscar some help, but when Oscar makes an appalling discovery, his task becomes much more daunting than watching the shop for a few days. Something is terribly wrong in the world, and all in Oscar's life is not as it seems. . . .

I adored Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs, and went into The Real Boy with high expectations . . . and The Real Boy lived up to those expectations well. As in Breadcrumbs, Ursu pays homage to fairy tales and classic literature, but she does so with a light touch, and in a way that enhances the story rather than distracting the reader. Oscar and Callie are wonderful characters, Caleb is more complex than he seems at first, and in fact the entire plot is less straightforward than one might expect. There's magic, and a history of magic in Oscar's world that both Oscar and the reader initially accept . . . but that history may not, in fact, be the truth, and so there are many surprising twists and turns as Oscar learns more about the world and about his own history. This is one of the best juvenile fantasies I have read this year, and I think it's one we might hear more about when award season rolls around again.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

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