A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane.
Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, my edition 2003, first published in 2002.
Middle grade fantasy, 320 pages + excerpt.
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 13.0 points)
NOTE: This is the 6th book in the Young Wizards series.
“Becoming a wizard isn’t easy. In fact, it can kill you.
All first-time wizards must go through an initiation in magic called an Ordeal. Most last only a few days. So why has Darryl McAllister been on Ordeal for three months?
Or has he? Darryl hadn’t actually gone anywhere. His body is still here; it’s his mind that seems to have departed. And that’s where Kit and Nita come in. Only together can they unravel the mysteries around Darryl – who he is, what he is, and why the source of all death in the universe, the Lone Power, is desperately trying to destroy him.” -back cover blurb
Even that is a little spoilery, but better than the synopsis you will find on most popular websites (including the two linked above), which give major spoilers. Unfortunately, this review will also be somewhat spoilery since this is the sixth book in a series. Discussing this book will give away some plot elements from the first five books.
I last read these these books many years ago and had forgotten that one of the two main characters is Latino. The other might be Latina (her given name is Juanita, her father is Irish-American but I don’t think her mother’s background is specified). When younger, I only cared about female characters. Although the two have very equal parts, I inaccurately recalled Kit Rodriguez as a sidekick to Nita Callahan and her younger sister Dairine.
Most of this review will be have spoilers for either the book or the series, but be sure to scroll down to the non-spoiler end…
Series Spoilers Abound!
This book opens at a very difficult point in the Callahans’ lives. In the previous book, the girls’ mother died despite magical and medical attempts to save her. All three members of the family are dealing with this in their own way. Nita is doing what she needs to, yet shutting down. Darine is being bratty and trying to avoid her own responsibilities, and their father is also caught up in his own grief, with limited availability to his daughters.
In the face of this overwhelming grief, Nita shuts Kit out, and he takes on a solo job. However, his dog Ponch has begun showing unusual talents, and ends up going with him into the increasingly desolate worlds that he’s trying to navigate.
Meanwhile, Nita is contacted by what she first assumes is a mechanical intelligence hoping for her sister. She’s offered an optional assignment, and has to decide whether to take on her own solo wizarding job or not. While she debates, Kit and Ponch move ever deeper into the series of strange worlds.
Major spoilers for this particular book:
We find out that Kit and Nita are working with the same person, a boy named Darryl who has been lost in the middle of his wizard’s ordeal for several months now. But Darryl is special for multiple reasons. One is that he has severe autism. Another is that he’s a pillar, a being of special light and innocence that is a force against evil in the world, but who must never learn who he is, because that knowledge would bring his death.
There were things I loved and things I was iffy about. On the one hand, I liked the way Darryl was introduced. At the same time we get two different and conflicting messages. One is an innocent young boy who desperately wants to communicate but can’t because it is too intensely painful. The other is an insanely powerful creator of incredibly detailed universes. Because the reader is introduced to Darryl through these two conflicting views rather than as a young black boy or an autistic child, we get a real sense of who he is rather than stereotyping him (unless, of course, you’re reading spoilers right now…)
The main thing I disliked was the portrayal of his autism as “cured” at the end of the book. This could have been handled better. I think the author automatically assumed that autism is bad and nobody would want to be autistic, but Temple Grandin and others speak eloquently about the unique perspective their autism brings. I was uncertain whether the book was trying to portray him as leaving behind only the worst parts of autism, or being magically “cured”, but it certainly seemed to me like the latter.
Mostly Done with Spoilers
Because the book is outside his point of view, Darryl’s ethnicity plays very little part in the development of his character. He is portrayed as having a stable and loving family.
So overall, there were things I enjoyed about this book as well as one major issue. If this book were being written today and published in 2017 I would be much more critical. We know so much more about autism specifically as well as disability representation and sensitivity readers in general. However, this is a book from 2002 featuring a disabled black main character – I’m going to land on the side of giving the author props for double diversity before it was a movement.
As usual, I wrote this review before reading any others – this book was already in my collection. When looking it up, I was happy to see that Disability in Kidlit had already reviewed it. There are now two editions of this book. I have the flawed 2002 paper book, but there is a newer eBook called the New Millennium Edition. The author took into account the critiques from autistic reviewers, and rewrote the book to account for their added information and lived experience. The NME ebook is recommended and there are hopes that it will eventually be published as the definitive edition.