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Sywbaw_coverLong before Harry Potter, there was another young-adult series about teenaged wizards. Diane Duane began her “Young Wizards” series in 1983 with the novel So You Want to Be a Wizard, an exciting adventure about a pair of bookish, unpopular-at-school teens who discover they can do magic and proceed to save the universe together. To this day, I wonder how I managed to miss that book in my voracious middle and high school reading years. It, and its first sequel Deep Wizardry (1985) should have been around, and High Wizardry (1990) came out when I was a junior in high school.

However, it took until relatively recently for me to find the series and lose myself in it, and now I wait impatiently for each new book to come out. Perhaps at some point I will post reviews of each book in the series individually, but for now I’ll cover the series as a whole.

Long before the term “urban fantasy” was in popular use, Duane was writing it in these books. The premise of the series is in some ways similar to Harry Potter: there is a secret world of magic hidden from view of ordinary mortals. But Duane goes about it in a much more scientific and less silly sense: magic is simply a way of talking to the universe in a way it understands,

And wizards—mortals of any species with a talent for magic—are the guardians of the universe, fighting the good fight against entropy to preserve life for as long as they can. They may, at any time, be called upon to journey through time and space to wherever a problem exists in order to put it right.

Kids love this sort of stuff—stories about someone their age who is able to take on adult responsibilities successfully, suggesting to them that they might be able to do the same. I know I would have eaten it up with a spoon at that age—and the nice thing is, it’s written well enough that I still find it engaging even now.

Even though Duane now lives in Ireland (where the fourth book, A Wizard Abroad, is set), she used to live in New York City, and the stories are set in a present-day version of it that I imagine would be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the city. She provides a wealth of detail, and the setting in a real place it makes the stories feel that much more real.

Because the books were written over such a long period of time, but covering the same characters, an element of “comic book time” can’t help but creep in. The shiny new computer Nita’s family gets in the third book is an “Apple IIIc+”—but just a few books later, and only a couple of years later in the characters’ lives, the events of 9/11 are mentioned and characters are using iPods.

Duane has mentioned that “Author’s Cut” revised and expanded versions of at least some of the books are due out later this year, and I imagine they’ll probably be modernized significantly. I can’t help but fear this will deprive the books of a little of their charm—the Apple II series was the computer I grew up with, and it was fun to see it get a sort-of mention in that third book.

The first three books form a sort of trilogy structure, with elements introduced in the first two brought to fruition in the third. But happily, the series didn’t end there, and is now up to nine novels in the main sequence, and three more in a spin-off series, Feline Wizards.

The Feline Wizards series for the longest time had only two books in it—as sometimes happens with books in a series, they did not sell well enough for a publisher to want to continue the series, so the final book in the trilogy languished unwritten. Then Duane decided to try a Storyteller’s Bowl-style project to write that third book, The Big Meow, in return for reader donations. It took a while for that project to complete, but it finally finished last month, and I’ve finally read it. And I’m pleased to report that it was worth the wait.

In the Feline Wizardry books, Diane Duane creates a secret culture among housecats, who can speak to each other in their own language, Ailurin, and who have their own internal history and a rich, distinctly feline, mythology. Duane does a wonderful job of building this secret world, and depicting the frustrations inherent in the job of wizardry for cats (such as being able to speak to their human wizard colleagues, but not permitted to speak to their non-wizard human “masters”)—as well as the benefits.

The Big Meow is the final volume of the trilogy, and sends worldgate technician Rhiow and her team back in time to 1946 Los Angeles. Here they are assisted by famous newspaperman and crime story writer Damon Runyon (and his cat Sheba) in preventing a threat from beyond from destroying the entire multiverse.

Duane’s penchant for research and for making locations real through description serves her well here—the reader is readily transported back to one of Hollywood’s most glamorous eras, as the entertainment world breathes a huge sigh of relief at the end of World War II and returns to business as usual. The characters are colorful, too—Runyon himself most of all, presented in a sympathetic and fascinating light, and in a way that will hopefully interest modern readers in his stories.

All thirteen chapters of The Big Meow are available for free on-line reading by anyone at the project’s website. The pages are locked down so that they can only be read on-line—the text can’t be copied and pasted or otherwise extracted. (Those who have paid to subscribe to the project can access DRM-free versions, including Mobi/Kindle and EPUB format files, on a different site. Subscriptions are still available for $22.50.)

The version currently available is just a draft, of course, with a few typos and even one “insert Ailurin term here” placeholder. It will be professionally edited and revised, then the final version will be made commercially available (with subscribers getting a print copy and e-book as part of the deal). But even in its preliminary form, it is a fun and exciting read,

Those who haven’t read the earlier Young Wizards books, or at least the first two Feline Wizards books, may be a little lost, however (not to mention that the book spoils some of the dramatic events in the first one if you haven’t read it already). But those who have read them will almost certainly be entranced as the magic of the series continues.

If you haven’t discovered this series yet, the rest of it is available as e-books through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The first eight Young Wizards volumes are sold at paperback price, averaging a little over $5 each. (I would expect the revised versions, out later this year, to be higher.) The latest Young Wizards and the two Feline Wizards books are $9.99 each. Readers outside of North America can buy them from Diane Duane’s web store, too (not sure of the DRM situation on these editions; if they’re DRM-free it’s kind of annoying that US residents don’t get to buy them that way too). (Or you can read them for free in your local library.) I highly recommend them.

 
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