Wednesday, July 11, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Magician's Apprentice, by Kate Banks

There are some books that shouldn't succeed, but do anyway. Maybe the number one example of all time is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. On its face, it sounds insufferable -- a mysteriously naive and yet truly wise space-child tells about his overtly allegorical adventures in a book full of Life Lessons and sprinkled with whimsical drawings. That it works anyway is a tribute to Saint-Exupéry's unique skill as a writer.

However, the fact that one of the all-time greats managed to pull off a seemingly impossible feat is not necessarily an invitation to try it yourself. The Magician's Apprentice, by Kate Banks, is a useful cautionary tale here, because it does almost everything wrong that The Little Prince did right.

Ostensibly, The Magician's Apprentice is the story of Baz, an apprentice weaver whose cruel master trades him for a sword to an itinerant magician. But, especially from the middle of the book on, it's one of those volumes that ends up subtitled "A Fable For All Ages," or possibly one that ends up shelved in the philosophy section. The story becomes less and less important, and it's not charming or fantastic enough to hold the reader's attention anyway, as it is in The Little Prince.

The setting, a sort of quasi-Persian landscape that seems to be entirely medieval with the glaring exception of one man's handgun, aims to be shimmering and dreamlike, but manages only a sort of sub-The Horse and His Boy exoticism. The relationship between the locations and the time and scale of the action are deliberately vague, to the point where, when one character asks where Baz is from, the book simply says that he "repeated the name of his own village," rather than giving the village a name. I know it's meant to make the book more universal, but it comes across as maddeningly coy instead.

Baz's mentor, the magician Tadis, isn't really a character at all, but some hybrid of a Magical Asian and a Canon Sue. He occupies a huge space in half of the book, and uses all of his time to philosophize in koans, creating a worldview that seems to be cobbled together from leftover bits of the Tao Te Ching and The Secret. Unity of all living things and power of intention are fine as far as they go, but Banks does a whole lot of telling and not very much showing, especially in the last fifty pages, where any pretense of this being a novel rather than a fable goes out the window. Again, to hark back to Saint-Exupéry, the Rose, the Fox, and the Little Prince himself aren't super-believable as characters either, but they somehow seem to preach less than Tadis does.

The best part of the book by far are the drawings by Peter Sís. Sís is on the record as listing The Little Prince as one of his all-time favorite books, and he does a good job of adapting his influences to his signature style. But it's not enough to fully redeem the book, alas. Banks is a capable author of picture books -- And If the Moon Could Talk won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, which is no mean feat -- but this foray into fiction for older readers makes very little impact.

Publication in August through Frances Foster Books / Farrar Straus Giroux

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