This one falls in the “I wanted to read it when it first came out, but there were just too many good books!” category, even though I really enjoyed Ursu’s Breadcrumbs. I’m very glad I got around to it anyway!
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu. Walden Pond Press, 2013.
Oscar is the boy who serves Caleb the Magician and his bullying apprentice Wolf, in the small village of Barrow which supplies the magic for the glittering city of Asteri on the island of Aletheia, the last home of magic in the kingdom after the plague that wiped out most of the population and the magic. Though Wolf constantly belittles and bullies him while the Magician does nothing to stop it, Oscar actually understands more about magic than Wolf, sneaking into the library at night to read about the properties of plants and the history of magic. Oscar may not be happy, and he never expects to be able to formally do the things he loves, but at least he is secure in his place, hiding in the cellar and gardens, away from the baffling public world of people.
Then things start going wrong, as they are wont to do. Wolf is killed; Caleb’s hidden greenhouse is smashed. Oscar is given the paralyzing task of running Caleb’s shop while Caleb tries to figure out what is going on. He is befriended by Callie, the healer’s apprentice, who needs Oscar to help solve the problem of the rich children from the city who are inexplicably falling ill. Their search to solve the problem involves investigations into the purpose and cost of magic and what makes people human, all while fending off outraged nobles and a large, unidentifiable monster.
There are hints of Pinocchio in The Real Boy, though not enough to call it a retelling. Oscar’s difficulty with people is clearly autism spectrum disorder, though of course in the fantasy setting, it’s not labeled as such and is just a part of who Oscar is rather than “Oscar Overcomes ASD.” I loved the way Oscar and Callie’s strengths and weaknesses played off of each other, and that they both found that they could do what needed to be done, even when it was well outside their comfort zones. The setting is beautifully detailed, a world where, again without it being a Thing, everyone is a person of color. Despite the monster and its smashing, this is a reflective story that will appeal most to those who like a story focused on character and setting. I’m not sure, alas, that that would be my son – but it’s certainly welcome to see a story with a thoughtful boy protagonist. At any rate, this is a gem of a book that deserves to be widely read.