The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I had to put a lot of thought into this review. Anne Ursu has done that to me with her last two books. I enjoyed her Cronus Chronicles series and it was novel in that it presents a family with people of mixed racial heritage in a very normal, everyday fashion, and I loved that about the books. Plus, it was just plain fun Greek Mythology fantasy with a spunky heroine and her good natured cousin along for the ride.
With Breadcrumbs, she gave us a young girl who touched me deeply. Her internal life and her attachment to a friend as an effort to deal with loneliness and rejection was a visceral ache. I think with The Real Boy, she has strummed that emotional chord again.
Oscar is an orphan who was 'bought' by a charmer to watch over his shop, do the cleaning, and to prepare his herbs for the potions he sells. It is never explicitly stated, but I believe that Oscar has autism. He has sense-related issues (will only eat bread because he doesn't like the feel of other foods), he has trouble looking people in the eye, and blurts out things and doesn't understand social cues, he's got a genius level intellect but others may perceive him as not all there. Oscar starts to believe he's not a real boy because he is viewed as so different.
This touched me deeply, that this boy would feel so isolated and feel so unworthy. This is real, how cruel people are to those who are different. It breaks my heart in fact to see him suffer this way. I think this aspect of the book resonated deeply with me. I also appreciated Oscar's developing friendship with Callie, an apprentice to a healer who has no magic.
The world-building was less impactful. I felt like there was more to be discovered and understood. Although I appreciated how the story builds slowly and the reader's understanding expands with continued reading, too much was assumed in this book, and too little spelled out. The concept of how magic was so crucial to the small island that Oscar lives on, with the folktale of the wizards who became large trees so they could watch over the island, that was pretty cool. Although I feel it sort of becomes less clear and tangible as the story goes along. I would say the reveal towards the end was quite interesting, but to talk about that too much would be a spoiler.
Fundamentally, I feel that Ursu excelled with the emotional landscape of this story, but the fantastical foundation suffers in contrast. Oscar is an unforgettable little boy. His emotional journey speaks to my heart. For that alone, I gave this four stars. I was conflicted because I don't think this book measures up as well as far as a fantasy novel. As with Breadcrumbs, I wonder how much of the emotional depths will register with the young audience it's aimed at. It would be a great thing if kids who feel isolated because of their oddness would feel touched by Oscar's story and would understand that they aren't alone after all.
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