The National Book Award Finalists were announced last week; the Longlists cut by half into Shortlists. Among the Young People’s Lit titles that are squarely within Newbery range, TRUE BLUE SCOUTS and THE THING ABOUT LUCK are hanging in there. FLORA & ULYSSES did not make the final round, nor did A TANGLE OF KNOTS or THE REAL BOY.
Yet Ursu’s THE REAL BOY seems to be a popular fall favorite, is faring well on the Goodreads Newbery list, and Rachel Stein and Sam Eddington are championing it at For Those About to Mock, where Sam calls it “meticulous in its world-building, sharp in its characterization, and beautiful in its prose.” I agree, and yet, I can’t get totally behind this one. I was completely involved in the reading of it, and think this is even stronger than Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS. Yet it had enough chinks in that world-building and characterization that the strengths didn’t quite hold up for me.
Those chinks didn’t really make a mark until the end, though I noticed them from the start (the alphabetical garden that defies how things actually grow (basil (high water/sun annual) doesn’t mix well with Bay leaf (perennial shrub); the very flat characterization of important side characters such as Macolm and Caleb); the world building was so intriguing that I was able to put these aside. But as Oscar and Callie started to unravel the mystery in the last third and quarter of the book…that world building started to unravel too, and some how became less curious, less mysterious, and even less real. When we get to the idea of a whole town with fake kids….there was not enough underpinning this idea to make it hold up. I stopped believing in it, which was really an amazing feat, given the strength of Ursu’s prose in establishing a vivid and believable setting. I wonder, too, about the double-reveal; the first one was so unexpected to me that it opened the story powerfully… but the second took it right back to where I assumed it was going all along…except for the other-kids-being-wood part, which, again, I just needed a little more foreshadowing for to believe that it had been there, all along, under my nose, and wasn’t just an invention of the author.
Am I reading from too mature of a viewpoint? I am a true fan of fantasy, but I like a complex magic in them. I’m less fond of stories where Magic is treated with a broad brush, capital letters, all-or-nothing. This is, admittedly, probably the best capital-M Magic book I’ve read in a long time. Am I just not the real reader for this book?