Monday, July 8, 2013
2014 Contenders: The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu
The Real Boy is set on an island in the twilight of its Silver Age, a world that largely rests on the laurels of those who came before. Magic was powerful once, but the true wizards are long gone, and only one person in the Barrow -- the magic-infused forest that surrounds the great city of Asteri -- is skilled enough now to even call himself a magician. This is Caleb, and Oscar, the novel's main character, works for him as a hand, collecting and grinding herbs. Everything seems peaceful on the surface, but there are signs that all is not well in the Barrow; signs that become increasingly unsettling as the book goes along. Oscar would like nothing more than to stay in his quiet routine and let others take care of the problems at hand, but that may not be a choice he gets to make.
This bare description of the setup does The Real Boy absolutely no justice. It's an astonishing book -- meticulous in its world-building, sharp in its characterization, and beautiful in its prose. Anne Ursu creates a universe that resembles little so much as an M.C. Escher drawing; everything seems perfectly normal at first, but the more both the reader and the characters examine it, the more vertiginous and off it becomes. Figuring out what is actually going on requires Oscar and his new friend Callie to peel back the comforting lies of their society to reveal the rotten truth beneath.
The Real Boy has much in common with Breadcrumbs, Ursu's last novel. Like Breadcrumbs, The Real Boy has no true villain, a somewhat ambiguous ending, and a protagonist with characteristics that aren't common in children's fantasy literature (Hazel in Breadcrumbs was adopted from India; Oscar in The Real Boy is almost certainly somewhere on the autism spectrum). However, The Real Boy is less fragmented, less deliberately subversive of fantasy tropes, and, though it retains an air of profound melancholy, less bleak. As a result, I think it may be easier for the Newbery committee to come to consensus around.
And make no mistake, this is a book that deserves serious consideration. It's far and away the best children's book I've read this year, and the finest exemplar in my opinion of the Newbery criteria. I can't see a scenario in which it doesn't make the reading list for our Maryland Mock Newbery, and I will be talking it up to anyone who will listen for at least the next six months.
(As a side note, The Real Boy for the Schneider as well? Fantasy novel or no, I've rarely read a book with as well-rounded and thoughtful a portrait of a character on the autism spectrum.)
Publication in September through Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins