This 1983 book is the first of nine 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.