Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Diane Duane

The Young Wizards Series
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

Currently eight books and twenty-five years strong, this series of sci fi-fantasy adventures proves that its author is too good to be wasted on Star Trek novelizations. Fans of Harry Potter, take note. Run, do not walk, to your library or bookstore, and borrow, buy, or order these terrific books! It should be astonishing if this still-growing series isn't nearly as well known as the (now completed) seven-book series by J.K. Rowling, and loved by many of the same people.

Beginning with So You Want to Be a Wizard, the series follows the career of teen wizards Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, best friends from a suburban community on Long Island, New York. Instead of going to a big wizard academy, they learn their Art as they go along, aided by a very interactive Manual and the advice of older and more experienced wizards. And though they are fighting to save the universe from the Father of Darkness, a.k.a. the Lone Power, from the very beginning, they have to hide their wizardry, at first, from their own families.

As the series develops - so very like real life - things change for Nita and Kit. Nita's kid sister Dairine becomes a wizard. Later on, Kit's dog Ponch starts developing interesting powers, and his family - particularly his older sister Carmela - develop symptoms of "wizardry leakage." And most poignantly of all - proving that Duane is confident enough to make irrevocable changes to her own "formula" - Nita's mother... well, you just wait and see.

These are dramatically strong stories that combine mindblowing science concepts, cosmic battles between good and evil, and encounters with the Powers of Life and the Lone Power (of death and evil). Nita and Kit weave spells, visit the Faery world, swim with whales, meet aliens from outer space, visit other universes, and also cope with the every day problems of siblings, parents, pets, and school. It's amazing what you can do when you learn to speak the language of Creation itself, which - if you say the right words in the right way - can actually change the world. And it's equally amazing, what obstacles you can overcome when you have a faithful friend to back you up.

I could not recommend a series more highly than this. If you are ready to move on to the next thing after Harry Potter, this may be it.

So You Want to Be a Wizard
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

This 1983 book is the first of eight books in the Young Wizards series, which in many ways should be right up your alley (if you like Harry Potter, that is). The author is a prolific science fiction writer who has contributed a number of books to the growing list of Star Trek titles, as well as the Net Force series co-authored by Tom Clancy, and other interesting-sounding series including Doors and Cat Wizards. The Horn Book justly compares this book to Diana Wynne Jones-style magic and Madeleine L'Engle-style science and metaphysics. I would add that the innocence, youthfulness, courage and sacrifice in this story bears comparison to J. K. Rowling. But Duane crafts a completely unique kind of young wizard tale. Jones' wizardry usually inhabits a fantasy world, and L'Engle's combines melodramatic teen romance with sophisticated science-fiction concepts. The difference is between one writer who creates her own magical world with its own set of rules, and the other who lets the cutting-edge discoveries and rules of our world inspire her stories. And Rowling, sort of in between, sets her magic in a version of the real world that, all unawares, has a fantasy-world concealed in it. The three authors illustrate the differences in genre between fantasy (Jones), sci-fi (L'Engle), and modern fairy tales (Rowling). And Duane fuses them all together in her own unique way.

Nita (full name, Juanita Callahan) is a bookish, 13-year-old girl living with her florist father, her ex-dancer mother, and her younger sister Dairine in a Long Island suburb of New York City. She constantly gets beaten up by schoolyard bullies and doesn't know what to do about it. One day, while fleeing from a confrontation with her nemesis Joanne, Nita finds sanctuary in the children's section of a public library. There, on a shelf full of career-advice books like So You Want to Be a Doctor...a Writer...and so on, she finds a book that just has to be a joke: So You Want to Be a Wizard.

But the book is no joke. Nita takes it home and learns that wizardry (in Duane's world) is the art of slowing down the death of the universe. After she takes an oath to serve the cause of Life, Nita and a twelve-year-old wizard named Kit Rodriguez try to do a spell together and get caught up into a horrible, parallel dimension. In coming back, they unexpectedly acquire a strange new friend: a white hole named Fred. And the task of straightening out this new kink turns into the great ordeal that inducts the two children into the world of wizardry.

For before they know what's happening, a search for a lost pen has sent them on a chase across two parallel-dimension versions of Manhattan, where they are chased by vicious man-eating helicopters and taxis, to name but a few bizarre creatures. All this to retrieve the all-important Book of Night with Moon and to prevent the Lone Power, a.k.a. the Starsnuffer (basically, the Evil One) from turning our world into a frozen place of everlasting night. Along the way they befriend a predatory sports car, they make a bargain with a dragon, they walk on thin air 70 stories high, and they perform astonishing feats of magic while moving statues and trees fight to defend them. And that's not even the scary part.

Fans of fantasy/sci-fi-fairy tale magic will enjoy Duane's interesting take on the meaning and nature of wizardry, which combines evolutionary atheism with Jewish mysticism and animistic pantheism, shot through with multidimensional physics. That means, in English, that she takes into account "entropy" (the fact that the universe is running down), the existence of good and evil (almost to the point of describing good and bad angels), and the idea that if you talk persuasively enough and in the right language, you can change the world. She also describes someone chillingly like the Devil, though instead of "God" she speaks of Life as almost a person unto itself.

All in all, it's fascinating from a theory point of view. But what keeps you turning the pages is the fact that it's just a darn good story. Nita and Kit are delightful characters, you sympathize with their problems, and you enjoy the wild and wacky tour of New York they take you on. Fred is an adorable...er, being...who gets all the funniest lines. And because doing good and saving the world often hurts, I would not be surprised if you finished reading this book in tears.

It's very, very different from the world of Harry Potter, but it is still a story full of cool magic, that will stimulate your mind and touch your heart, and leave you dying to get hold of the second book, Deep Wizardry.

Deep Wizardry
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

This is the 1985 sequel to So You Want to Be a Wizard, and second in the Young Wizards sequence that (to date) runs eight books strong. And wow, what a powerful story! I hardly know where to begin!

Some months after their first adventures as partner wizards, thirteen-year-old Nita Callahan and twelve-year-old Kit Rodriguez are on vacation with Nita's parents and sister Dairine on a Southampton (Long Island, NY) beach when they get called into active service. The wizards who need their help just happen to be whales. Taking whale form, Kit and Nita become part of a ritual reenactment-- something between an opera and a sacrament-- that must be done periodically to hold back the Lone Power (a.k.a. the Old Serpent).

After gathering ten whales and one Master Shark for singing roles in an ancient drama of temptation and sacrifice, the great animals dive deep into the ocean and battle against Krakens, traitors, and worse, in order to save the Eastern Seaboard from going the way of Atlantis. There's a catch. Nita, in the form of a humpback whale, is singing the part of the Silent Lord whose sacrifice redeemed life... and she must not only reenact the sacrifice, but she must actually give her life to save Life.

At first you're wondering, How is she going to get out of this? Later you begin to ask yourself, Will she find a way to actually do this willingly? And what will become of her parents, who have just learned that their daughter is a wizard, and are only beginning to cope with that? What will become of her sister Dairine, who shows signs of becoming an even greater wizard? And what will become of Kit, whose wizardry is forever bound up with hers?

The cast of characters mostly consists of whales and one very big, very old, very scary shark named, well, Ed. And amazingly, they all become very interesting and sympathetic characters, each memorable in his or her special way.

Some may be particularly impressed by the part of the story when Nita and Kit convince Nita's parents that they are wizards. Some may revel in the gorgeous language, the bottom-kicking battles, and the powerful magic in the story. Some may love the environmentalist themes and the majestic forces of nature on display here. And even though there are several stories about Nita and Kit after this one, still most of us will be awed by the pitch of suspense this tale reaches. Personally, I was blown away by the way Ms. Duane captured the concept of redemption and wove it into a heart-wrenching, gut-clenching climax.

If you take a chance on reading this book, you will almost certainly be eager to read High Wizardry after it.

High Wizardry
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

The third novel of eight (so far) in the Young Wizards series sends teen wizards Nita and Kit on a perilous adventure through outer space. This time, they are tracking Nita's kid sister Dairine, who has just become an incredibly powerful novice wizard armed with a laptop computer and a beta-software version of the wizard's manual.

Bookish, computer geek Dairine's dream is to fight Darth Vader (this book is set in 1985, remember), but she has little reckoned on the Lone Power, a.k.a. Starsnuffer, who wants to spread death and darkness throughout the universe. After the ultimate culture shock on a really, really alien planet, Dairine is pursued by Bug Eyed Monsters (BEMs for short) from world to world, until she arrives on a planet-sized silicon chip in space where her Ordeal is to take place. There she creates a new form of life that may bring about the downfall of the Lone Power... or sudden death for the whole universe.

Meanwhile, Nita and Kit follow in Dairine's wake, accompanied by their smart-beaked macaw friend Peach. As the two parties finally converge in the final confrontation against the Lone Power, once again Duane creates a terrific climax full of beautiful language, sacrifice, redemption, and transforming love.

Fans of C. S. Lewis may recognize the idea of a reenactment of the First Temptation and Fall (with, the reader hopes, different results) from his space novel Perelandra. Fans of classical mythology will be riveted by the references to the Prometheus legend. Eagle-eyed theologians and philosophers will be fascinated by Duane's weird combination of atheistic evolutionism (complete with big bang theory and long ages) with a cosmos that contains figures nearly identical to biblical angels-- both of light and of darkness.

Even a hint of God slips in, in an impersonal way; and as in the earlier books Duane lumps biblical data with "other myths" as imperfect versions of the real story, or as a process that is repeatedly carried out in the universe's many worlds and long history. So teen sci-fi fans may also be reminded of Madeleine L'Engle. It's interesting how a "Christian" author and one who, to my imperfect knowledge, is an atheist, so nearly approach each other's vision of the world when they turn it into science fiction. And the outcome of the young wizards' battle with the Lone Power will leave many readers itching to find out what happens in the subsequent books (A Wizard Abroad, etc.)

Favorite line: "Fairest and fallen," Nita said, "greeting and defiance."

A Wizard Abroad
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

Book 4 of the ongoing Young Wizards series tackles the problem of what new direction to take teen wizards Nita and Kit in. After all, they've been to a parallel dimension, they've been at the bottom of the sea, and they've been to the farthest reaches of the universe. They've confronted the ultimate evil, they've participated in a redemptive sacrifice, and along with Nita's kid sister Dairine-- a 12-year-old wizard so powerful that she's scary-- they've even seen a reenactment of the Temptation in the Garden. Where do you go from there?

Simple. Ireland, silly.

Nita's parents are still concerned that, after over a year of wizardry, she and her best friend and wizard partner Kit might be getting too close for comfort. So they pack her off to Ireland to stay with her Aunt Annie. But what begins as a holiday from wizardry, soon turns into a wizard assignment of cosmic importance. For the boundaries between the dimension of Faery and the real world have become thinned, and the residue of past magics has built up like so much toxic waste, so that ancient evil is poised to break into present-day Ireland... and there is little the wizards of the land can do about it.

What they need are four great signs of power representing the elements of water, air, earth, and fire: a chalice, a sword, a stone, and a spear that will turn back the troll-like Drows and the warg-like Pookas and, finally, Old One-Eye himself (a distinctively Irish embodiment of the Lone Power). Combining the rich mythology of Ireland (it helps to read the book's Irish glossary first) with the galaxies-wide, oceans-deep, entropy-fighting wizardry of Kit and Nita, the story also includes a kitten named Tualha who happens to be a bard, and a rather gothic boy wizard named Ronan (!!) who gives Nita her first taste of romance.

Duane's world of wizardry continues to grow in richness and depth. This story explores differences among different orders of Powers (angels?), makes more references to the elusive One (God?), and even hints at still another class of beings, the People of the Air (a.k.a. the Good Folk-- somewhat like the Elves or Faerie of J. R. R. Tolkien's imagination). The different ways wizards in different parts of the world do their work also makes things interesting. And down to earth a bit more, you see Nita growing up a bit, and trying to understand her relationships with Kit, Dairine, her parents, and others better. Her attraction to the brooding Ronan makes an appealing sub-plot, as if the adventure and mystery and humanity of the story aren't enough to captivate you, from the wizard's argument with her Mom at the beginning, to a cat's flight up a chimney at the end.

For further development of these things, you'll definitely want to read the next book in this series: The Wizard's Dilemma. And the series Cat Wizards by the same author might also interest you... Oh by the way, see if you can spot some wicked puns in this book. If you're not too bushed from all the teen romance and cosmic wizardry, you might enjoy a quiet snicker. But you have to keep your eyes peeled!

The Wizard's Dilemma
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

By the fifth book in the Young Wizards series, mighty teens Nita and Kit have explored the oceans, outer space, parallel universes, and the land of Faery. Now a new and far more personal assignment takes them into "inner space."

It begins with a quarrel between our two young wizards, which might seem to be the beginning of the end for their partnership. Things aren't helped when they both accept solo assignments that take them out of this world, in vastly different directions. For while Kit's dog Ponch is teaching his master the joys of creating new universes, and traveling between them without wizardry, Nita's family is shattered by the news that her mother has a brain tumor. And her search for a way to save her mother's life confronts Nita with a real wizard's dilemma: make a deal with the devil, or let her mother die... give up wizardry forever, or spend the rest of her life knowing that she let her family down.

What results from this dilemma is the severest test of the partnership between Kit and Nita so far. It is a weird adventure among many worlds, some of which exist for training purposes only, in which Nita meets a variety of really cool aliens, makes entertaining conversation with the Transcendental Pig, and faces down the Lone Power one more time. Meanwhile Kit, led by his adorable and adoring mutt, follows her scent from one universe to another, racing to save her from doing the right thing for very, very wrong reasons (or maybe that should go the other way around).

Besides the adventure, it is also the deepest exploration yet of the characters and relationships in Nita's family, in all their wonderful humanity. You also meet Kit's family (finally!). And you get to share the humor, the sorrow, the fear, and the hope of the Callahans in the story of a battle against cancer whose ending is not necessarily what you would expect. And the temptation of Nita creates some of the series' richest suspense so far, with a clearer than ever (though still secular) delineation between good and evil. And this too works out in unexpected, but totally fulfilling ways.

What you should expect is wet pages and a pile of used facial tissue next to wherever you read this book. You'll want to keep the unused tissue handy, as the sequence continues in A Wizard Alone.

A Wizard Alone
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

The sixth book in the Young Wizards series picks up a few months after The Wizard's Dilemma, and a month after teen wizard Nita Callahan's mother died of cancer. While she tries to pick up the pieces of her life, along with her sensitive father and her difficult sister Dairine, a strange and lonely intelligence begins making contact with her through her dreams.

Meanwhile her partner in wizardry, Kit Rodriguez, still trying to understand the amazing powers of his dog Ponch, finds himself flying solo on a mission to find a young wizard who has been stuck on his Ordeal for three months. And not surprisingly, the two mysteries gradually combine into one intriguing adventure, with a confrontation against the Lone Power at the end.

After exploring cancer in the previous book, A Wizard Alone uses teen wizardry to explore both the process of grieving after a loved one's death, and the little understood condition called Autism. Indeed, certain similarities between the two problems braid the plot lines together in a satisfying way.

Plus the endearing and increasingly articulate character of Ponch continues to develop; a fascinating new young-wizard character is introduced; Kit and Nita's family ties grow more interesting and richly detailed; and the effects of "wizardry leakage" on the appliances and people in Kit's home provide a comical side-plot that means you will never look at your remote control the same way again.

It's rare to see such an imaginative, entertaining sci-fi / fantasy series tackling such important and yet down-to-earth issues. Yet at the same time, Duane never lets her characters be mouthpieces or ideological chits; they remain real people, and the story itself is of the highest quality. I think the effect is to make Kit and Nita's world so much more real, and to raise the stakes on their adventure so that it really matters to you.

And there are just enough questions left unanswered at the end of the book to make you impatient to get started on Wizard's Holiday. What I wanted to know, for instance, was - when is Ponch going to take the Oath?

Wizard's Holiday
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 12+

The seventh of the ongoing Young Wizards series is this 2003 book featuring teen wizards Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez. Nita's wizardly kid sister Dairine gets into big trouble for trying to sign Nita and herself up for a wizard exchange program during spring break. As a result, Nita and Kit get sent away as exchange wizards, and Dairine and her dad play host to three young wizards from far away. Only we're not talking about young wizards from France or Japan, but from the far reaches of the galaxy...

Of course, it's not supposed to be "errantry," or official wizard business. It's just supposed to be a holiday, a cultural exchange with a dash of wizardry. And for Kit and Nita, they couldn't have been sent to a nicer planet for it... Alaalu, which is all beaches and cheerful, honest people, without war or disease or crime, and hardly even any death. Leave it to Nita to find something wrong with it. And leave it to the Lone Power to be at the bottom of it. And leave it to Kit and his "adjunct talent," i.e. his dog Ponch, to follow Nita right down into the Alaalid underworld.

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, Dairine and her dad have to make some quick adjustments to get along with a sensitive sentient tree, a giant ravenous centipede with eight eyes on stalks, and a handsome and arrogant prince who seems to think all this is beneath him. After experiencing a day at the mall with these three zany characters, you would think an opportunity to save the earth from a solar crisis would come almost as a relief. But Dairine needs to grow a bit if she's going to handle the pressure... and her new friends have their own problems to come to terms with.

This story is full of wonderful sci-fi and wizardry stuff, like the Binding Oath that Nita forces upon the Lone Power, and the paradoxical plots and counter-plots relating to the Choice of Alaalu, and the stellar mechanics involved in saving our sun, not to mention all the different alien creatures and their cultures. All this is quite interesting, but what really makes the story click is the combination of mystery, suspense, humor, and romance, with wonderful and real characters that just keep growing on you. I hope to see more of Nita and Kit and all their friends!

Wizards at War
by Diane Duane
Recommended Age: 13+

The Young Wizards series has always been among my top recommendations when Harry Potter fans ask what to read next. So, I was already thrilled when I found out that this eighth book in the series was coming out. Then I got an even bigger thrill when Diane Duane HERSELF “owled” me through the COS Forums. Do you dig that, people? The author of So You Want to Be a Wizard is a member of your forums! And she has read my reviews of her books! And now, in spite of a badly-timed vacation and a lot of fuss with DHL, I have in my hands an autographed copy of Wizards at War. Feasting! Rejoicing!

OK. Deep breath.

Here’s the truly astounding part. The book came with a personal note from Ms. Duane, all the way from her home in Ireland, where she makes the following sad admission:
“You might want to let people know that, though I’ve seen the HP movies (and with considerable enjoyment), I’ve never read the books, and probably won’t be doing so for quite some time. Starting with the publication of the first HP book, I quickly became sensitive to the immediate/automatic assumption by some people that my books are ripoffs of JKR’s – and very early on I realized that, for the foreseeable future, I was going to have to be able to put my hand on my heart, when asked, and say honestly that they’re not. I’m aware of the fact that I’m probably being deprived of some happy reading time, but for the time being I think I’m taking the wisest course.”
This is a tragedy that honestly, seriously, breaks my heart. Those of us who hold the Young Wizards books in a place of honor next to the Harry Potter books – and I hope and expect that there are a lot of us – know very well that So You Want to Be a Wizard was published almost a decade before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. We also know that the resemblance between the two series is vague to start with, and vanishes more and more with each successive book. They give us similar kinds of pleasure, and in similar quanities, and that is about as close as they get if you ask me. So I think we can all agree, right now, that no one who says that Diane Duane ripped off JKR is to be taken seriously. Give the poor lady a break, so she can finally read some books that she will find very enjoyable and surprisingly unlike her own books!

And now, before I forget...the review.

As each adventure of teen wizards Nita and Kit comes to an end, one wonders how – or rather, if – Diane Duane can possibly top it in the next book. And since this series, unlike HP, has no set number of books, there’s really no way to tell for sure that there will be a next book. There are clues, of course. The end of this book, for example, leaves a lot of “unfinished business” that cries out for a Book 9.

But after bringing together all the surviving characters from the previous seven books; confronting them with an immediate threat to the existence of the entire universe; revealing that this very “clear and present danger” is only a diversion for something really nasty that the Lone Power has planned; forcing the “young wizards” to figure everything out on their own without even the usual moral support and advice of their seniors; after not one but two gigantic climaxes in which more than one recurring character is revealed to be more than we thought them to be; and after a tear-jerking conclusion that (once again) means things will never be the same for our wizardly friends...well, honestly, how COULD she top that?

My goodness. I think I just wrote a synopsis of the whole book in one sentence. The funny thing is, you’re no wiser about what’s going to happen than you were before. Ha! ha! You’ll just have to suffer from the anguish of anticipation until you get hold of Wizards at War!

Then you can read about the mysterious flood of dark matter that is filling up the universe, disrupting wizardry, and threatening all life everywhere. You can thrill to the biggest team-wizardry you have ever read about. You can sigh or giggle (depending on your maturity level) at the hormonal romance popping out in all directions. You can feel a warm hug from the many old friends who put in an appearance, and experience Duane’s fascinating blend of scientific, spiritual, and imaginary ideas, woven into the background of Kit and Nita’s very personal struggles.

But if I were you, I wouldn’t believe me when I tell you that the best part of the book is when a dog tells a bedtime story to a giant bug. Go ahead, try to prove me wrong...and when you flip the last page with a full heart and a staggered brain, you’ll be glad that I tricked you into reading this book!

UPDATE: A ninth book in this series, titled A Wizard of Mars, is due to be released in August 2008. The cover of this book, as well as the first two books in the spinoff "Cat Wizards" series, appear above. A third "Cat Wizards" book called The Big Meow is in development.

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