by Anne Ursu
341 pages that magically draw you into the story of flawed boy in a perfect world. But what is real – what is said, what is done or what you see?
a highly recommended book for intermediate and middle grade readers
When you look at the map of Aletheia you can see signs of the past. The Shining City of Asteri encircled by its shimmering magic wall , the Barrow and the Magic Smiths’ marketplace open each day, the ancient forest and grove of one hundred Wizard Trees and the plaguelands, cutting the eastern villages off from the rest of the island – a daily reminder of past sickness and pain that is no more.
Alethia has been through much and the future seems promising. There is now one magic worker so skilled that he calls himself a magician, Master Caleb. He was the first magician in a generation and he helps the beautiful people of Asteri shine even more brightly. Master Caleb has an apprentice, Wolf, and like the wizards of old, he also has a hand, Oscar. He gathers the herbs and prepares them. Oscar make sure everything the best Magic Smith on the island could need is ready. For Oscar going to the wood to gather the plants and berries, the mosses and bark is a comfort. He cares for each ancient tree, each bush and flower. He carries a map in his mind of where he needs to gather in order to keep the shelves of the pantry and shop well stocked.
Master Caleb found Oscar in children’s home and he was glad for his work and his place to stay. Oscar is careful and diligent. He quietly executes his tasks in the pantry, prepares the shop of opening each day and cares for the cats. Oscar observes, remembers and learns all that he can. Though Oscar is supposed to stay in his room from 9 o’clock ’til morning, in the middle of the night Oscar silently creeps into the enormous library to read. Breaking that one rule was worth everything to Oscar. He couldn’t learn enough about plants and magic, the history of Alethia and the places beyond his small corner of the world.
While plants and the forest bring ease to Oscar, being with people bring worry and confusion. Wolf torments him. Oscar can’t look people in the eye when they speak. He can’t find the words to say. People were confusing. They never seem to say what they mean. The meaning of the words and their tone don’t match – words crackle and spit at Oscar, they whir and hiss. Wolf constantly askes Oscar what was wrong with him. Oscar doesn’t know, it just is. As Master Caleb’s fame grew, more people came to his shop. There was more need and demand, but there was also call for Master Caleb to go to the mainland to see if magic could be sold and traded once again as it had in times past. Those trips meant more time that Oscar must be alone with Wolf and even more time that he must be with people from the city and the barrow.
Oscar has a job to do. He is loyal and true. He is careful and hardworking. He will do as his master says, but that is hard, very, very hard. Oscar longs to retreat to the safety of his pantry, to his quiet life with the cats, to his silent time in the forest, but he cannot. Something evil has come to Alethia and something very wrong has been done. Master Caleb is gone. Oscar has a job to do.
The Real Boy is a beautifully crafted story full of characters that come to life as you walk beside them through the city, and the marketplace and the wood. The importance of kindnesses and honest caring shine through the murk created by fear and greed. What does it mean to be real? The answer to that question is not as simple as it may first appear.