THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu

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The Magician Caleb adopted Oscar as his shop assistant, to help with small tasks like restocking the pantry, but not with magical tasks of preparing spells for the customers.  As far as Caleb and his mean-spirited apprentice Wolf know, Oscar can’t even read—although Caleb has begun to suspect something of Oscar’s self-education through the way he obviously knows more about herbal magic than Wolf.  Shy Oscar is happy to remain in the background where he doesn’t have to interact with people, who often think there is “something wrong with him.” But when Caleb goes out of town on a secret errand, Wolf sneaks out to the forest for an afternoon and is chopped up into bits by some unknown creature.  Soon after, Callie, the healer’s apprentice arrives with more distressing news: the children of the lords and ladies in the high-walled “Shining City” are contracting mysterious illnesses—and the healer is also away on unnamed business.  Fearing a resurgence of the plague that nearly destroyed their country years ago, Oscar and Callie realize they cannot wait for their masters to return.  They must try to find a cure for illnesses—and hope that whatever monster killed Wolf does not return.

I loved this book!  I found it much more engaging than Breadcrumbs.  The story develops slowly, with a lot of time devoted to world-building.  But by interspersing a few dramatic and intriguing events early on, Ursu kept me eagerly turning pages, trying to puzzle out the mystery as I became immersed in the fantasy world.  As the title suggests, it is inspired by Pinocchio, but only loosely; the connection isn’t even clear until over 200 pages into the story.  More significant is Oscar’s struggle to fit in with the “normal” people around him, his gradual discovery of his own abilities and self-worth, and his growing friendship with Callie.  All of the characters—good and not-so-good—are carefully crafted with strengths and short-comings.  And the ominous evil that threatens them is both terrifying and misunderstood.  A wonderfully complex and engaging fantasy—I highly recommend it!

If you liked The Real Boy, you might like Charmed Life by Dianna Wynne Jones, Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson.

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