6 Rated Books Joint Review Old School Wednesdays Read Diversely

Old School Wednesdays Readalong: So You Want to Be A Wizard by Diane Duane

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is So You Want to Be A Wizard by Diane Duane.

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.

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So You Want to Be A WizardTitle: So You Want to Be A Wizard

Author: Diane Duane

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: First published 1983
Paperback: 400 pages

Something stopped Nita’s hand as it ran along the bookshelf. She looked and found that one of the books had a loose thread at the top of its spine. It was one of those So You Want to Be a . . . books, a series on careers. So You Want to Be a Pilot, and a Scientist . . . a Writer. But his one said, So You Want to Be a Wizard.

I don’t belive this, Nina thought. She shut the book and stood there holding it in her hand, confused, amazed, suspicious–and delighted. If it was a joke, it was a great one. If it wasn’t . . . ?

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Young Wizards series

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook

REVIEW & DISCUSSION

Ana’s Take: I’ve always heard such great things about this book and series, I was very happy when it was chosen for the Readalong.

Now that we’ve read it, I have mixed feels about it. On the one hand, I like that the two protagonists are Hispanic kids, I appreciated some of its themes especially those pertaining to choosing between right and wrong and about being merciful; and how there is this zany quality to the story progression that is reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ books. On the other hand, maybe the very same zany quality prevented me from actually feeling completely smitten with the novel? That maybe there is too much happening – everything but the kitchen sink – at the speed of light and not enough time is spent actually developing things? Or maybe that’s just me?

Thea’s Take: The Young Wizards series was vaguely familiar to me (I think I may even have read this book when I was a kid), so I was pleased when I saw that this title had been chosen for the July readalong. But, like Ana, I have mixed feelings towards So You Want to Be A Wizard. I liked the blend of science fiction and fantasy, and I loved the idea behind magic in this book and how one becomes a wizard. Similarly, the characters were fun, and the writing style wonderfully zany. That said, the plot itself was excessive and I found my attention wandering while reading the book. I think I may have appreciated this more, had I come to the series as a child unfamiliar with YA SFF, but… as it stands, I wasn’t overly impressed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Let’s start with plot and context. So You Want to Be A Wizard was initially published in 1983 – since then, there have been a slew of other YA fantasy novels that involve wizards (including one very popular bespectacled Boy Who Lived). How does this novel stack up? Does it stand the test of time?

Ana: Interesting question. Not sure how to answer this – because there is a sense of familiarity about it, right? But it being written prior to the works I’ve read which themselves are responsible for creating that sensation means something. But it’s not like I can be all tabula rasa when reading it. There is no avoiding that sensation from a subjective perspective – and that goes for works that were published before (like A Wrinkle of Time which this book also reminded me of a bit) and after (like the aforementioned Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jones).

That said, objectively speaking, familiar tropes become familiar tropes for a reason and what matters is what you do with those tropes. I think that this book handles the Quest really well, as it does the topic of bullying (more on that later) and yes, I think it does stand the test of time on its own.

Thea: I’m of two minds. As Old!Thea, reading So You Want to Be A Wizard for the first time as an adult (one who is fairly well-versed in science fiction and fantasy), I wasn’t smitten with the novel. Objectively speaking, I know this isn’t any fault of the book – it predated Harry Potter, and any number of recent YA novels that feature wizards and/or blend interplanetary science fiction with fantasy elements. As Kid!Thea reading this novel for the first time with fresh eyes, I probably would have been much more likely to love the series.

But… like Ana says, you can’t really read books in a vacuum – experience and other external factors contribute to one’s enjoyment and interpretation of any given text. Not to mention, I’ve retrospectively read seminal books that have inspired many tropes and various reimaginings/borrowings over time – and I’ve been enamored with said seminal books. I can’t say that So You Want to Be A Wizard accomplishes that sense of timeless awesomeness, unfortunately.

2. So You Want to Be A Wizard blends elements of science fiction and fantasy, from physics to magic. In your opinion, is this blend successful or unsuccessful?

Ana: This is probably where I am most torn about the novel. I think the blend of Science Fiction and Fantasy and of physics and magic is successful for the most part. Fred – the white hole – adds an interesting scientist side as does the magic background that involves all the living things being connected, etc. I am also a sucker for parallel dimensions and different worlds and surprise!time travel!. Those elements were blended successfully for me.

But I will admit I was a bit blindsided when the Archangel Michael had a cameo because all of sudden, on top of everything else, this world also has Judeo-Christian connections and I was less enthused about that (I also don’t think that aspect of the novel added anything new to it?).

Thea: Conversely, I actually really loved this aspect of the book. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing about So You Want to Be A Wizard! I wasn’t expecting talk of black holes and white holes, quasars, and neutrinos to enter this fantasy novel, but they did and I thought it was delightful. Clearly, Fred is the standout character as the personification of a white hole that emits (unlike its black hole cousins that prevent any matter from escaping) – but beyond Fred, there’s also discussion of alternate/parallel versions of places, which factors in very nicely to the overall story. I also very much enjoyed certain fantasy angles to the novel, particularly the power of words (and mathematically balanced equations) to magic-working. How cool is that?!

And yet, as Ana points out, there’s a bit much happening, and some of it is not so great. The Good/Evil overtones, in particular, were not my favorite… but more on that next.

3. This novel also focuses on dichotomies in symbolism and theme – bright and dark, right and wrong, positive and negative. Does this work in your opinion? Why or why not?

Ana: Yes, because I feel those were explored without a lot of didacticism and came down more as a matter of choice and of allowing people to choose between those? Like those were not innate, natural, intrinsic qualities but something you have to choose to be? In that sense, I loved the eventual showdown between Nita and the Bad Guys (both the magical enemy and the immediate enemy i.e. her bully). Because it was all about giving second chances and seeing people as people capable of making different choices and changing.

Thea: I don’t know. I agree about the matter of choice, and I appreciate that it does come down to personal choice and agency. That said, the book is incredible didactic, divided between very clear lines of what is GOOD and what is EVIL – which is a little frustrating to read because there’s so much room for MORE. Gradations of good/bad, conflicted motives, ethical quandaries… I want to read about those things. I keep bringing up Harry Potter, but despite being polarizing between good and evil on the surface, there’s so much more going on in that world and with those characters. Here? Not so much.

4. Let’s talk characters – what did you think of the characters and their arcs? Any favorites?

Ana: Although the novel is much more plot-driven than character-driven, there were still interesting character developments in the novel to keep me interested in them. I loved Nita: I loved her struggle and her way of dealing with bullying. With regards to that issue, I found interesting how it seemed to be connected with racism or at least experienced differently in the context of Nita’s mixed-raced family? Her white father is all “why don’t you defend yourself” whereas her Hispanic mother is all “I understand what you are going through”, possibly because she too, was bullied? That dynamic was very understated but definitely there.

Do you know what I truly and really loved about the book? That Nita’s motivation for going down this Quest was to find her missing pen, taken for her when she was beaten by her bullies. Obviously that pen is a placeholder, a metaphor for her wanting to get back what she lost, because it’s probably the most empowering think she can think of at that moment.

Also, who doesn’t love Fred?

Thea: FRED! Fred is the best. I love the way that Diane Duane is able to imbue life into what is essentially an astral body/phenomenon, turning it into a funny, interesting character. Of course, I’m also a big sucker for Nita (short for Juanita), who is incredibly smart and gutsy, and a heroine who finally finds her calling in a strange book.

If I had one complaint about the characters, particularly Kit and Nita, it’s the fact that they basically know all the things – from physics, to equation balancing, to spell-working. And these two characters are brand new wizards, but they’re already fraught with mortal/dimensional peril. Not that there’s anything wrong with that setup, I just had a tough time buying that they would be so adept so quickly to face such huge hurdles. But… that’s just me.

5. Have you read any other Diane Duane books? Will you read more of her work in the future?

Ana: This was my first DD book and I would probably read more of her books although probably not this series. Like I said, I enjoyed a lot of the book but wasn’t completely in love with it.

Thea: Same here! I will likely check out Diane Duane’s other work, but I don’t know if I’ll continue this series.

Rating:

Ana: 6 – Good

Thea: 6 – Good

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Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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11 Comments

  • hapax
    June 25, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Hmm. I love this series *now*, but I’ll confess I wasn’t blown over by it at first. I was mostly … charmed by it, I guess, by the science / fantasy mix, and snared by the Coolness (sentient cars! prophetic parrots! the Transcendent Pig!)

    I didn’t get really hooked until the third book HIGH WIZARDRY, which greatly expanded the mythology behind the series, and fell in love with A WIZARD ABROAD,

  • hapax
    June 25, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Hmm. I love this series *now*, but I’ll confess I wasn’t blown over by it at first. I was mostly … charmed by it, I guess, by the science / fantasy mix, and snared by the Coolness (sentient cars! prophetic parrots! the Transcendent Pig!)

    I didn’t get really hooked until the third book HIGH WIZARDRY, which greatly expanded the mythology behind the series, and fell in love with A WIZARD ABROAD, which pushed the series in a much more character-driven direction.

    But yeah, in a time when we have a superabundance of great YA fantasy, it’s a bit much to say, “No, stick with the series, after several books you’ll REALLY LOVE IT, I promise!”

    (I also like the tie-in with Judeo-Christian mythology, which at least *explains* why one side is Good and the other Evil; sometimes I feel like epic fantasy sets the contrast up as not much more than rival teams)

  • M—
    June 25, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    I started by stumbling upon the second book, DEEP WIZARDRY, and never looked back. It’s still my favorite.

    If Ana and Thea stop reading here, they’ll never meet Ed.

  • de Pizan
    June 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    This is probably hands down my favorite YA scifi/fantasy series. Which is saying a lot. I agree this first book has a LOT going on and that it might be a little much. I was also kind of hesitant to get into the other books, but they get so so much better. The 3rd and 5th books especially are my favorites.

  • Samantha
    June 25, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    I second the shout-out for Deep Wizardry! I’ve loved this whole series since I was quite small – there’s nothing like the idea of a wizarding manual found in a library to capture the imagination of a young girl completely enamored of all things fantasy – but book two still has an extra-special place in my heart. And it has WHALES!

  • Liz
    June 25, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    I third the recommendation for Deep Wizardry. Some books in this series are better than others but overall it’s still one of my favorites. And, as M- says, if you don’t read it you’ll never have the experience of Ed.

  • John
    June 25, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    All of this is supported – while I love this series and this book in particular, the others are even better and the series consistently improves itself. I also find it funny, because I’m probably in the minority in that this series beats Harry Potter for me.

    Yes, I said that – but the series ultimately deals with themes that include the importance of decision making, of reality, of growing up and the idea of knowledge as power versus strength/energy as power. It also addresses many instances of mortality, religion, faith, nature. I mean, HP addresses a lot of this too, but I felt like Duane did it in ways that were (for me) more complex. Either way, I think both series have their merits – and that we forget that we view HP as the full series arc when we discuss it, which drastically affects how we discuss HP compared to individual books versus series.

  • Ana
    June 26, 2014 at 3:42 am

    So up until reading these comments, I will confess I had zero intentions of revisiting the series but y’all might have convinced me to at least TRY Deep Wizardy. 🙂

  • Lory @ Emerald City Book Review
    June 27, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    I think you would do well to give the series another chance. This is one that is not just “more of the same” after the first book — it does develop and Duane grows as a writer. You might be pleasantly surprised!

  • Diane Duane
    June 29, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Two things — first, can I thank Thea and Ana for their careful and courteous reading of a very early work? It was, after all, only my second novel: I was striking out into unknown territory at that point, both experientally and stylistically.

    And secondly: thanks to the commenters who feel that the series improves as it goes on. Jeez, I hope it does. 🙂 (And those of you who cite Deep Wizardry as a favorite would by no means be alone. There was just something special going on when I wrote that book.) But there’s a reason why it starts out with everything initially seeming a little black-and-white… one that becomes apparent (I like to think) as we go along.

    At any rate: thanks again. 🙂

  • Kitten
    July 12, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    I’m also going to say that you should try the next book in the series. I liked but did not love the first book. Deep Wizardry was so much better. As someone said, if you don’t keep reading you’ll never meet Ed and that would be a damned shame.

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