The Wizard's Dilemma

by Diane Duane

Published by Harcourt

403 pages, 2001

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On Top of the World

Reviewed by Monica Stark


No matter how you slice it, these days it takes a fair amount of chutzpah to write a work of children's literature featuring wizards. It doesn't matter if the writer with a bent for wizardry was doing it first and that some would say does it better than certain red-haired Scottish wordsmiths. Nor does the fact that the books in question are set in the United States -- when not in some interesting off-world place -- if you say "children" and "wizard" in the same sentence nowadays, J.K. Rowling and her fabulously loved Harry Potter spring right into your mind, no matter what.

This infatuation with all things Rowling gives any other author with a wizarding series underway a sort of double-edged sword. Or wand, if you prefer. On the one hand, even if the series in question preceded Harry Potter, it's tough not to draw comparisons. On the other, the almost otherworldly success of Rowling's series which has drawn millions (and millions and millions) of readers worldwide means that, in the necessary lull between Rowling blockbusters, young readers with a thirst for magic might find themselves sating it on other series. So, initial comparison followed by renewed success. There are worse fates for authors. Ask anyone.

The Wizard's Dilemma is the fifth book in Diane Duane's "The Young Wizards Series" featuring the wizarding team of Nita and Kit, now 14 and 13, respectively. Before you get ideas, Nita and Kit are not Hermione and Harry. Not even close. And the brand of magic they practice is quite different to that enjoyed by their Rowling-drawn counterparts. Duane's magic is, if anything, more scientifically based than that which Rowling creates. The spells Kit and Nita have to come up with sometimes look more like high school calculus than anything else: it's hard work being a wizard and there are considerable sacrifices to make.

There's always a great deal at stake for Duane's magical children. Sometimes planets and even whole universes depend on them for magical intervention and cleaning up the ocean is all in a weekend's activities. In The Wizard's Dilemma, Nita tries to explain the joys and frustrations of being a wizard to her mother and finds herself at a loss for words.

Nita shook her head, not knowing where to begin. The rush you got from talking the universe out of acting one way and into acting another, with only the Speech and your intentions for tools; to know what song the whales sing, and to help them sing it; to stand in the sky and look down on the world where you worked, and to be able to make a difference to it, and to know what you did -- even in the Speech there were no words for that. And helping others do the same thing -- particularly when spelling with a partner -- "It doesn't always hurt," Nita said. There's so much about it that's terrific."

In The Wizard's Dilemma, Kit and Nita find themselves at real odds for the first time. While off on his own, Kit and his dog Ponch find a series of universes that didn't exist before they arrived. Meanwhile, Nita's mom is discovered to be deathly ill and the only being who can help save her is The One Nita pledged to fight. It is, as the title suggests, quite a dilemma.

Duane's young wizards are competent and powerful, especially since, in her mythology, wizards enjoy their greatest strength while immature. The wisdom and focus they attain as they grow older making up for the loss of early power.

Author Duane has written over 20 fantasy and science fiction novels, most of them for adults. The first book in the "Young Wizards" series was So You Want to Be A Wizard, originally published in 1983. It's amusing to think that, in a literary world that was strictly chronological, young Nita would now be approaching 30.

Is Diane Duane the writer J.K. Rowling is? It's not really a fair question. Dennis Lehane and Sue Grafton both write crime fiction, but no one is constantly comparing them. It's safe to say that the world is big enough for two -- and more! -- fictional wizards aimed at juvenile readers. It's well known that children are close to magic. Good writers know how to bring it closer. | September 2001


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.