Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 16, 2009

Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series

Filed under: rereading,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 11:45 pm

It’s difficult for me to know what to write about these books, as it always is when I love something so much.

YA sf about wizards – what’s not to like? And it’s definitely sf, not fantasy, despite all the, um, magic. There’s a good solid rationale behind it, there are laser guns, there are nonhuman aliens of any number of kinds, and the books are liberally strewn with meta-SF references. Urban SF, possibly, as opposed to urban fantasy.

When Duane does use realworld science to support her plot hooks, the results can sometimes be a bit unfortunate – for instance, in book 8 the world suffers from Thinning (and all the adult wizards go totally Susan, leaving the kids to save the universe – what a surprise!) because the amount of dark matter in the universe is stretching space too much and making everyone depressed and despairing. However, that’s a minor oddity, and this effect doesn’t turn up often enough to be problematic.

Amusingly, these books score really high on the pagan-friendly chart, according to the Internet. But wizards… magic… references to Powers who were known by the names of pagan gods… talking animals! So why amusing? Well, the world is set up like this. Initially, things were created perfectly, we’re told. The universe is friendly, and loving, and yearns towards sentience and life. And then one of the Powers that served the One – the best and brightest of them – decided to create something entirely new. Entropy and death. Cast out, he became the Lone Power, roaming the universe cackling and twirling his moustache, tricking species into accepting his “gift”, and hating all that lives and grows in its own way. Sounding familiar yet?

How about if I say that sacrifice (especially substitute sacrifice) and redemption are the main themes of the series? Or that it keeps dropping hints that there’s a good and useful side to the Lone Power’s gift, and that by passing through its effects wizards (and species) can become wiser and stronger? Or that helping the Lone Power trick itself into accepting redemption is usually the way to win?

This isn’t just Christian, it’s outright Catholic. It isn’t Christian allegory in the style of CS Lewis, mind – watered-down Sunday-School-by-stealth. There aren’t any prissy English children wandering like tourists through a universe other people control, dancing on the author’s puppet-strings while he acts out a cute little Bible story. These are real people, worried about real and important things, thrown into a job the Powers That Be think they can do. Nobody’s special because of their genetics (though wizardry does seem to run in families) and sometimes it takes nonwizards to save the day. The viewpoint characters are more often female than not, and a fair proportion of them are non-white (it’s American, so Spanish names indicate PoC – I always have trouble remembering that) and there’s a heavily implied gay couple in a major supporting role.

Oh, and yet another thing that makes it work far better than either Narnia or Harry Potter? Families. This series presents realistic, three-dimensional families, with all the trouble and wonderfulness that they lead to. Being a wizard doesn’t get you out of living in the real world; indeed, quite the reverse. This isn’t escapism here.

July 9, 2009

The other side of escapism – fantasies of service

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

I’ve started re-reading Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, more or less concurrently with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. I didn’t pick them as a pair deliberately, but they do have quite a bit in common beyond the wizards-in-cities schtick – they’re both fantasies of service.

A lot of people characterize SF as escapist, both as a positive and a negative term – it takes you away from the real world, it takes you to a better one, and so on. But there’s a definite tradition of engagement as well, and the whole it might be you trope isn’t always about Being Special, about being the One Princess Destined To Whatever. Sometimes it’s just about validation – the hope that one day, someone will turn up and hand you a magic sword, a talking horse, or the root password to the universe. And then they’ll say, It’s yours now. Do good with it.

Mercedes Lackey is a perfect example of this. If the Powers want you for a sunbeam Herald, they’ll send a shiny telepathic horse to kidnap you and be your best friend, and then you’ll jump into harm’s way for everyone’s good. Or from her urban fantasies, Diana Tregarde has the Guardian power – when she’s certifiably Doing Good, she gets an extra huge magic battery to plug into.

Duane’s Wizards do it a bit differently. Wizardry is, by definition, service; using magic reduces entropy and slows down the heat death of the Universe. It’s a choice you have to make for yourself, and one you have to keep on making, and the reward for a job well done is always another one.

What more could we wish for?

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