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.