Though she doesn’t like to admit it, thirteen-year-old Nita Callahan is having trouble at school. She is an average student living on Long Island, and truthfully her teachers aren’t particularly good or bad. The problem is, Nita has trouble making friends, a bit of a temper, and thus is a prime target for bullies that like to attack in force. At home, her parents mean well and try to help by taking her to martial arts classes and encouraging her to fight back or say something — anything — but Nita thinks that fighting back will only make the situation worse. Adding to the humiliation is the fact that her little sister Dairine has mastered those martial arts lessons the way she’s mastered everything else, and has offered to beat up Nita’s bullies on Nita’s behalf.
So, Nita has become rather cynical about her life, and resigned to letting the grinding humiliations continue… until, that is, she takes refuge from her bullies in the children’s section of a local library, and discovers a strange book within the stacks. So You Want to be a Wizard, says the title on the spine. The book is an instruction manual — with far more instructions than can reasonably fit within a package so thin — and it comes with an oath to protect life and to fight the forces of darkness and entropy. Seeing a way out of her life, a way to make herself special and to make a difference in the world, Nita reads the oath out loud, and then her troubles really begin.
So starts the first book of the Young Wizards series, a sequence of eight (so far) books by Diane Duane written over the past twenty-six years. In the first book, entitled So You Want to be a Wizard, Nita Callahan meets up with Christopher (Kit) Rodriguez, a twelve-year-old living nearby who has also just taken up the wizardry oath, and the two become fast friends. Both are still surprised, however, to discover that the oath comes with a cost: new wizards are expected to go on an “ordeal”.
Indeed, they are usually “called” to see the oath because an opportunity has presented itself to the forces of light in the universe to fight back against the force of entropy, typically personified as the suave, satanic Lone One. While young wizards are inexperienced, they have more power, and so considerable responsibility is thrust upon them, which has unfortunately led to many deaths — many missing children.
In Nita and Kit’s case, experimenting with their magic starts a series of events which pitches them through a worldgate into a dark mirror version of Manhattan, where all the machines have taken on an evil form of life, rendering the place uninhabitable to humans. Their task is to recover the Book of Night with Moon, which has somehow found itself in the Lone One’s abode, and the Lone One does not take kindly to intruders.
Diane Duane is a familiar name to lovers of fantasy, not to mention fans of Star Trek. She has written countless books, television shows and comics, and she shows off her skills here. The books of the Young Wizards sequence are all adeptly written, with a compelling voice and interesting characters. The scenes where Kit and Nita find themselves trapped in the dark mirror version of Manhattan are what catapult the first book into classic status for me. They are so crisply written, with a touch of the bizarre, that the pictures they draw are highly compelling, despite how frightening they are.
Nita and Kit are likeable young teenagers who quickly get the reader on side. Their chemistry is an instant hit, and this reader was able to believe them to be fast friends, able to make trips to New York City on their own despite having known each other less than a week. Duane’s writing style features small touches of humour that balance out the action and the creepier scenes, and she’s able to poke a little fun at Kit and Nita’s relationship, and everybody’s perceptions about the physicality of it, particularly as they age into their mid-teens.
Beyond Kit and Nita, the other characters in these novels cannot be seen as throwaways, particularly Nita’s parents, and Nita’s sister Dairine. The second book in the series, Deep Wizardry, dealt with an attack by the Lone One on the sea floor near Long Island. Nita and Kit are required to participate in a reaffirmation spell be performed by Dolphin and Whale wizards, a move that forces Nita and Kit to participate as whales. The book was a little slow for my taste, but there were compelling scenes later in the book where Nita is forced to tell her parents everything about who she is and, despite their understandable desire to pull her out of the life she’s chosen to lead, to decide that the promises she has made to Life in general outweighs the obligations she has to her family. It is the strongest moment in the book, if not the series.
Things pick up in the third book, High Wizardry, which focuses on Nita’s younger, smarter sister, Dairine. The tension between Nita and Dairine is well played, particularly Dairine’s jealousy at her sister’s newfound wizardry abilities, which leads to a striking act of hubris when the wizard’s manual and its oath comes to her in the form of a doctored Apple laptop. Her humbling experience, even as she pulls off one of the greatest victories for the side of light, is a joy to watch, as is seeing how the rivalry between her and Nita is underlaid with strong bonds of familial love.
Diane Duane knows what’s important when it comes to telling a story. The timeline for these books has remained frustratingly vague for fans. The first book was written in 1983, and the ninth book in the series, A Wizard of Mars, isn’t due out until March 2010. Despite this, the characters barely age three years between these books, and each book is set in the year of its release. In the third book, eleven-year-old Dairine gives her year of birth as 1978, but references to iPods and Powerbooks appear in the later novels.
And, you know what? That’s not important. High Wizardry features the inclusion of a computer that’s based on the Apple IIc, and the book hasn’t dated. Duane shows an understanding of the dramatic implications of computers, without being bogged down by technical details. Likewise, the story’s themes of familial bonds, obligations, light versus dark, hubris versus humility, cynicism versus optimism, are timeless, which explains the series’ continued popularity to this day.
The Young Wizards series is something readers young and old will enjoy. Young readers who can’t get enough of Harry Potter and who have exhausted their Time Quartet series will find much to like here. This is a wonderful series by an author who loves fantasy, knows fantasy, and who knows how to communicate that love to her readers.