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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu | review

 "Magic smiths didn't believe in monsters, and Oscar no longer believed in magic smiths..."

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
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Middle Grade Fantasy, 288 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by Walden Pond Press
On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city that was saved by the magic woven into its walls from a devastating plague that swept through the world over a hundred years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow. Oscar spends his days in a small room in the dark cellar of his master's shop, grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island generations ago. Oscar's world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.

But it's been a long time since anyone who could call himself a wizard walked the world, and now that world is changing. Children in the city are falling ill, and something sinister lurks in the forest. Oscar has long been content to stay in his small room in the cellar, comforted in the knowledge that the magic that flows from the trees will keep his island safe. Now, even magic may not be enough to save it.

In some ways, like Breadcrumbs before it, The Real Boy is a story of disillusionment. Ursu has a knack for honing in on that transitional period of not-quite-childhood, when some of the magic of life begins to dissipate and less-pleasant realities start to seep in. Oscar's world is a very small one, and everything in it is set; it's dependable, reliable . . . Until suddenly, it's not. Or, Oscar realizes, maybe it never was. Doubt — the realization that your heroes may not be as heroic as they seem, that life may not be as simple, and your own place in it not as clear-cut — is the death-knell of childhood; once you realize it's ending, it's already over. Ursu perches her story on this precarious point, and just as Oscar realizes that things are changing, everything comes crashing in on him. This is part of what makes for a good middle grade fantasy-adventure story (child suddenly finds his/herself stepping out of the carefreeness of childhood and taking on Serious Adult Burdens), but I think it's not often realized or used to as good effect as Ursu is able to achieve.

 But also like Breadcrumbs, The Real Boy is a story of finding your place in life and letting people in. Oscar doesn't have to go it alone. There's a sweetness to the story, to Oscar and Callie and their friendship. To the dependable world Oscar's worn grooves into, with his cats and his plants, and everything in it's proper place. Sometimes "sweetness" can sound saccharine and very After School Special, but the sweetness of The Real Boy is not forced or syrupy. It's just a beautifully conveyed story of friendship and connection; of belonging, even when you feel like you could never belong. And it's aided by the fact that everything about Ursu's writing — her world-building and character-building — feels so natural and effortless. She is able to immerse the reader in this world without the story ever feeling bogged down in excess details; she helps the reader see through her characters' eyes without heavy-handed moralizing*. Nothing feels phony or out of place. It's engaging and refreshing and so very perfect for a juvenile/adult crossover - a book and a world that readers of all ages can enjoy.

Beyond the storytelling (and the story itself), I just really like the style choices Ursu made. Little things that, if done well, should be unobtrusive, can play a huge part in the overall feel of the story, and Ursu pays attention to those details. Things like sentence structure and the cadence of different characters (and yes, I know cadence is a sound thing, but you know how you can hear the characters in your head? That.), all of those little details make the bigger picture what it is. Oscar doesn't use contractions, which adds to his feeling of being off, of being distant and at a remove from those around him. He sees himself as not quite like everyone else, and his speech (including inner narration) and interactions with people subtly build this feeling of separation and isolation from others, whom he is Not Quite Like. I don't know if other people notice these choices, these teeny, tiny things, but I do, and I appreciate them. I'm hesitant to say too much more on this, because I don't want to color someone else's reading of Oscar or his story, but I just really appreciated the choices Ursu made and the way she represented her characters. I do want to talk more about it, but I'm hiding it behind a spoiler button, so if you want to go into the story with fresh eyes and your own interpretation, please don't click.

Ursu's skill as a storyteller is obvious, and her understanding and compassionate approach to her characters and stories, as well as her embracing of all the grays amid the easy black and white of life are guaranteed to win me over, and keep me thinking about and talking about her books for a long time to come. Breadcrumbs started me thinking, and The Real Boy has confirmed, that Anne Ursu has earned a firm spot on my author-to-watch list, and I'd highly suggest that if you haven't read anything by her yet, you should rectify that soon.

*There is a moral to be had - probably a number of them. And though they are fairly clearly present, the story isn't didactic or preachy

Don't forget, you can enter to win this one, as well as check out an excerpt & some of the artwork from the book, here! Bonus points have been added to the giveaway for commenting on this review. Good luck! =)


  1. I think that this book "The Real Boy" sounds very interesting and your review of this book, makes me think that we would enjoy reading about Oscar who works for the most powerful magician in Barrow and about the going ons in the Barrows and the ancient trees

  2. I haven't read "Beadcrumbs" yet, but I really want to, and I'm looking forward to adding this on my TBR pile as well. I really like the premise of your book and your review revealed what I'm most interested in about this book. I can't wait to see how Ursu manages to establish the break from fantasy to reality without being too obvious. Thank you for the review!

  3. very interesting to note that it has elements of Pinocchio! I'd love to win the giveaway and be able to read it for myself!


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