On My Shelves: Support Your Local Wizard (Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series)

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     I had read the first book, and part of the second, of this trilogy (So You Want to be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, and High Wizardry) many years ago, but recently I picked up this omnibus and read it to my son Gabriel.

 

     The basic concept of the series is that wizards have a task of supporting the basic order of the universe, in essence attempting to minimize or even reverse entropy. Nita Callahan is a young girl (12 to early teens) whose major love is reading, and who runs across a strange book titled "So You Want To Be a Wizard"… which turns out to be exactly what it appears, a guide to becoming a wizard, someone who can control and direct the forces of the world with word and gesture and symbol. But becoming a wizard is a solemn and deadly serious affair, and when she – and her new friend Kit Rodriguez – take the Oath of Wizardry and begin actually practicing magic, they are plunged directly into the conflicts between mortal wizards, the great Powers which help control the workings of the universe, and the Lone Power who chose to invent death and entropy and now opposes all others.

 

     These books have on occasion been compared to the Harry Potter series, and there are certainly similarities; the age group is similar, the existence of a secret world of organized magicians who maintain the secrecy of their existence, hidden magical creatures and effects in the world, and the fact that the child wizards swiftly become involved in affairs far out of the league that we associate with children of their ages, these also are very similar elements.

 

     But the Young Wizards books are otherwise very different. While great skill at wizardry naturally comes with long practice, it turns out that sheer power at wizardry is associated with youth, and both Nita and Kit are very, very young for wizards. (later on Nita's sister Dairine becomes a wizard, and being even younger than Nita is immensely powerful). Moreover, the Oath of Wizardry immediately triggers a sort of destiny, a testing and a mission or Ordeal, which is placed upon the newborn wizard. In the case of Nita and Kit, their first true mission takes them literally to another universe – and into a direct confrontation with the Lone Power itself!

 

     This is not at all dissimilar to the situation seen in Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and there are a number of similarities in feel between these books and Wrinkle, as well as some clear Christian-related parallels – the Lone Power is at least in one aspect Lucifer, the Fallen Angel, even though he is also other dark gods or spirits of legend, while Wrinkle also has strange alien forces that at the same time clearly are linked to something very much like Christian mythology. The world that Kit and Nita find themselves in for their Ordeal, too, is a world twisted to the desires and needs of the One Power, just as Camazotz was shaped by the desires of IT.

 

     At the same time, there are huge differences. Nita and Kit are active forces, even when they're still trying to figure out what they can do, and how they can do it. They have the inherent power to affect the world around them, and they can, and will, use it. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murray's major power to fight evil is more a matter of emotion and faith. And while both series of books put their protagonists into the middle of potentially cosmic forces, the powerscale of the Young Wizards books becomes… huge.

 

     The three books deal with multiple serious issues of choices, death, life, and even touches on other issues such as sex (even if mostly by denial on the part of the two main characters that they are doing anything in that area; one cannot blame their parents for wondering, though, when an adolescent girl and boy start going off alone together for extended periods of time).

 

     There are also numerous Crowning Moments of Awesome in the series; without spoiling too much, I will say that there's few things more cool than bringing all the statues of New York City to life to do battle with evil. And that's just one part of one battle.

 

     The powerscale and the stakes in these books are not for the fainthearted; Nita, Kit, and eventually Dairine confront threats and make choices that would give even major superheroes pause – while at the same time remaining children.

 

     The latter is one of the key parts of the series. Nita and Kit are very believable, authentic, geeky kids who've happened to be dragged into something vastly larger – that uses and needs their sense of wonder to achieve great things. They worry about their parents, and staying out too late, and doing homework, dealing with bullies, keeping secrets, and everything normal… even while they end up playing in a game whose stakes can be larger than their entire world.

 

     These are wonderful books, beautifully written and powerfully plotted. They have few, if any, slow spots.

 

     The only real flaws are occasional lapses on the part of the author of either knowledge or research, where words are either used incorrectly, or numbers/information is inaccurate or simply don't make sense (depths in fathoms that imply that several whales plus a gigantamongous shark of doom are all swimming around AND OVER each other in about 40 feet of water; the detonation of something stated to well outmass our sun at a range that should actually end up vaporizing the planet, but instead just makes a bright light, etc.), but these are, honestly, minor failings. They made me twitch when I encountered them, but none of them caused me to do more than grumble internally; the story and characters were more than powerful enough to keep me going past these minor speedbumps.

 

     I strongly recommend this omnibus and the books of which it is composed. I haven't read the later books in the series yet but I would be surprised if they are not of the same quality. Go, join Nita and Kit as they take the Oath of Wizardry… and save the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Pat Munson-Siter says:

    I’ll definitely second this recommendation. Duane has recently been updating the books in this series as well; I have not seen the updated versions so can’t comment on how the updates affect the stories (updates to bring the tech levels, etc more up to modern day; it’s surprising when you go back and read the originals just how much has changed in the years since the first books were written.) I gotta admit that my favorites are her “Feline Wizard” books, about the cat wizards – especially the team that takes care of the World Gates (think magical wormholes, transporter pads, etc.) that wizards use to travel from one point in the universe to others most of the time. Three so far, although the third is only available as an eBook at the moment. I’d like to see more books featuring Rhiow and her team!

  2. The series is now up to 9 books. http://www.dianeduane.com/ Diane is also updating the series to make the timeline more current, in a version called “The New Millennium editions” of the books.

    The further ones are good and do show the influence of Harry Potter in that they let her tell a longer story (than 200-300 pages). The last few are 400+ pages.

    • I’m not terribly enthusiastic about updating books. I had to make a decision about where to time-fix Digital Knight when I rewrote it, and locked it as starting at 1999, partly because there’s some events in there that *CANNOT* take place in, say, 2010.

      Some of the charm, for me, of books like these IS that they have some elements of the past in them — the little Apple computer running off of floppy discs, etc. Changing that to something more modern seems to me to lose the flavor of the era in which it was written.

      • Richard H says:

        The big thing that’s weird about the Young Wizard books is that they seem to follow the comic-book method of technological development: characters age a little, as is convenient for the story, but technology always updates to the most immediate version.

        I grew up with an Apple II at school, so I had a soft spot for that, but the technological progression always felt a little too sudden. Resetting it to coherently progress from, say, 2000 or 2010 doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, because you can have a technological progression which, while possibly dated at least feels coherent. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I won’t hang onto my original (albeit paperback) copies (also assuming my mother didn’t donate them to the library at some point…) just to prove they exist.

        • Richard H says:

          Shorter version, come to think of it:
          The timeline and technology pace bugged me in 2000, so I’m not surprised at all that it bothers people even more 10 years later.

          • Hmm. Question, Richard – how old were you in 2000? It didn’t bother me, but then again when I was college age an Apple II was a high-end home computer.

            I dropped out of school for a while to work so that I could afford one – I had a monster system with 48K of RAM, a 16K language card, 2 143K floppy drives, and a keyboard modified to support both upper & lower case – high technology, I tell you!

            These days, of course, you can’t find a basic calculator or cheap low-end cell phone that anemic. But I didn’t find the technology in the story that jarring because it closely matched the period in which it was set, and I remembered what things had been like.

            • A bit late getting back here, but… I would have been 12 in 2000. (I feel old now…)

              Basically, I grew up with a 386 in the house (with an extra internal hard drive to give us a few extra tens of megabytes of storage space) and then a Pentium and then… 5 or 6 years before that, though, the most advanced computer I’d seen was an Apple IIe, though.

              What bugged me, I think, was that the first one had no computers and then the third one had something that was venerable when I was in kindergarten.

              • You feel OLD now? In 2000, I was 38. When I was 12, there was no such thing as a personal computer. At 14 I got access to a school computer network, which functioned at the blazing speed of from 110 to 300 baud, and all interaction was printed on paper by the dot-matrix printer terminal you worked at. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school that PCs as we know them began to emerge, and they were not common for a while after that.

                Diane Duane wrote those books only a few years after I was the age of the protagonists, so her progression there exactly mirrors my memories of the era.

                To give you another idea of the difference, when I DID first start using computers, things like “E-Mail” were considered utterly frivolous wastes of computer resources “with no practical application” and were deleted whenever the sysop found them. We had to re-code (i.e., type back in BY HAND) the mail program whenever he deleted it.

                • I feel old because I sometimes like to pretend I never grew up. I have a job and stuff (and I’m paid quite well, as a software engineer…) but I’m still not used to not being some kid in school. I imagine you went through a similar phase. Realizing that I was in middle school (which feels a long time ago) in 2000 (which seems not too long ago) is weird.

                  The thing is, at least the way I see it, most of the change since 2000 in how we use computers is in the casual computing power we throw around. There’s not an enormous difference between the computing power in a current smartphone and my laptop in college, whereas there’s a huge jump in the amount of data and processing power that the aforementioned laptop could throw around compared to the computers in my parent’s house… and there were games that could run on the 386 that couldn’t run on the Pentium I because they used the CPU speed to moderate the speed of the game loop, which is something it would be stupid to do, these days.

                  That change did happen quickly, but it happens even more quickly when characters age one year for every two years that the technology advances. On the other hand, maybe it was just that, for me, it went from “no computers” (which is something I’m used to in stories set in the past) to “early personal computers”, which is something I was familiar with but was not current… and doubly so when the computer exhibited behaviors which, come to think of it, would have been far beyond their capacity at the time, but seemed easy to sneak into the computers even I was growing up with.

                  • As far as I’m concerned, I’m still 18. I look in the mirror and don’t understand why my hair’s receding and my gut isn’t. My brain doesn’t feel any different, my body just refuses to recognize this.

                    I suppose it wasn’t as jarring for me because what they had their Magical Apple do was **SO** far beyond what any computer then OR today could do that it was pure fantasy. The computer gimmick would be just as ridiculous now as it was then. (Really. Natural language understanding at the level of that machine is utterly beyond our technology currently, and doesn’t seem any closer, really, today than it was in 1980.)

                    • The magical Apple is pretty magically impossible, and it ends up parking itself next to Wall-E in my mind, for some reason, but we’re a lot better at *faking* language understanding using statistical means now than we were back then. I’ll need to go back and reread the books to recall whether Dairine needed to activate the magic herself, though. (I suspect I’m making that up to make myself feel better. 😉 )

                      On the other hand, I’ll concede that it takes Ph.D. grade work and to beat a 50-line PERL script for answering questions, given equivalent input data, but I didn’t know that when I read them initially.

  3. I’ve only read the first four or so, but this is an excellent review of the excellent books I have read. Thanks for this.

  4. In fact I think I shall tweet a link to this post. 🙂

  5. Great summary of some great books — I think I went up to book six or so, I should check out the rest of them.

  6. Larry Lennhoff says:

    I recently started reading the New Millennium reboot of the So You Want to Be a Wizard series. I don’t see much added value, but Duane said (and a local age appropriate reader confirmed) that the low tech level made the books too foreign for the kids today. I can see their point to some extent – when the local wizards need to call the older ones, having to find a pay phone is going to seem weird. Even given the lack of cell phones, kids today would expect them to be able to communicate using their wizardry manuals – thats such a basic thing that its absence is glaring.

Your comments or questions welcomed!