The Real Boy is the newest novel by Anne Ursu, with illustrations by Erin McGuire. Ursu, with McGuire illustrating, wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Breadcrumbs, published in 2011. She is also the author of the Cronus Chronicles, a trilogy of books which, when I was a bookseller trying to pitch it to a potential customer, I would describe (in a shamefully reductionist manner) as Percy Jackson but with a girl protagonist. Of course, being the insightful, talented writer she is, Ursu's trilogy where Greek Mythology inserts itself into the everyday world of Charlotte Mielswetzski and her cousin, Zee, is so much more. Ursu is a masterful world builder capable of drawing the reader in instantly. Her writing is also frequently, almost quietly, so beautiful that you find yourself stopping to read a sentence again, just to savor it. An arrogant, interrupting character has a "voice puffed out like a cloud." The smell of a bag of freshly baked buns pulls at another character "like a wish." And, after reconciling with a friend he unintentionally hurt, a character feels a lightness inside and puts "his hand to his chest, to keep it there."
The Real Boy is set on the island of Aletheia, with the two main regions of the Barrow, a village enclosed in a forest that is rich with magical soil and Asteri, a glorious walled city on a hill, as the setting for most of the story. Once and for centuries, "legendary wizards had worked the island's magic," planting their feet in the soil of the forest and transforming into a tree when it was time for their end, their magic spreading through their roots and infusing the earth. When the last wizard of Aletheia became a tree, the slightly less powerful sorcerers emerged to take their place. The sorcerers, too, vanished over time and the slightly less powerful magicians took their place. When they vanished, magic smiths replaced them. Oscar, the protagonist of The Real Boy is an eleven-year-old orphan chosen specifically by Master Caleb, such a skilled magic smith that many call him a great magician, some six years ago because he was told that Oscar was unadoptable. Caleb is convinced that this unfortunate status will ensure Oscar's loyalty and devotion and it does. Oscar works as the magician's hand, a position lower than apprentice, which the domineering Wolf (aptly named because "sometimes the universe is an unsubtle place") never lets him forget. And it is Wolf's cruel voice that Oscar often hears in his when whenever his thoughts stray from the circumscribed world Caleb has given him - a life spent mostly in the cellar under the master's shop, sorting and preparing herbs for Caleb's spells, salves, protective charms, potions and thick blankets that will "obscure what lies beneath." But this dark and quiet life, reading in Caleb's (off-limits) library in the middle of the night, trekking through the forest to Caleb's magically obscured, fantastic garden and hot house, tending to the many cats that live in the cellar, is comforting to Oscar. When Caleb leaves on a journey then Wolf disappears, Oscar is thrust into the unquiet, uncomfortable, confusing world of running the shop and interacting with the customers - villagers as well as the perfect, Shinning People from the shinning city of Asteri. Oscar struggles with deeply held beliefs about himself and the village he has been brought to and the magic that has always been part of it as he tries to remain loyal to Caleb and help the children of Asteri who are being struck down by an odd and changing illness.
As with any great work of fantasy, Oscar does not travel his path alone. A friend arrives in the form of Callie, apprentice to Madame Mariel, the Barrow healer. Perhaps because of his time in the Children's Home or his time after that in the Caleb's cellars, or possibly because of some other darker, unknown element that is hinted at throughout the story, Oscar is profoundly uncomfortable and stiff in the presence of other people. Having to run Caleb's shop in the magician and Wolf's absence is excruciating for Oscar but the insightful and extroverted Callie tries to communicate with Oscar, behind Madame Mariel's back, with a series of raised eyebrows and expressions that flash across her face and leave Oscar thinking that they must mean something, but it "would've been nice to know what." Callie helps Oscar, to run the shop and to learn how to communicate with the villagers and, in turn, he finds that he can help Callie with his knowledge of herbs and his access to Caleb's library. But this is just one layer of a story that is much older and runs much deeper. Caleb's absence, which becomes a disappearance, leads to a string of discoveries by Oscar that connects the majestic wizard trees, the gradual dissipation of magic on the island Aletheia, a greedy Duke, a plague that ravaged the island, in the aftermath of the plague, the profound but misguided wish of privileged parents to protect their unborn children. And, finally, The Real Boy is also about magic and the way that "small enchantments make us dream of big ones," rather than dreaming of a big world. Not only does Oscar find himself unraveling the Caleb's secrets and their connection to the mysterious illness that is afflicting the children of Asteria, but he finds himself gradually unearthing an uncommon understanding of magic and human nature, both of which seemed so completely ungraspable at the start of the novel.
Without giving too much away, The Real Boy, which reads like a well-crafted fairy tale with the faintest shadows of Pinocchio at the edges of the plot, works, like all great fairy tales, on a more profound level, revealing to the reader notions about human nature, the nature of fear, what it means to be different and what it means to be real.
Other great books by Anne Ursu:
Source: Review Copy