Book: The Marvelwood Magicians by Diane Zahler
Genre: Magical Realism/Children’s Fantasy/Circus Books (is that a genre? Someone please tell me).
Content for the Sensitive Reader: Virtually none…that I can remember. Presence of fortune-tellers, some slight creepiness with the magical powers/hypnosis of villain/heroes…very tame.
BookmarkedOne Rating: 8/10
So I’ve been reading Zahler books for…well, let’s just say a long time. I started with A True Princess, back when I was about the target age group and adored it (beautiful cover, beautiful book, wonderful story, magic and weeping cherry trees, what’s not to like?). I’ve been hunting down most of her books off and on since then (still need to read Baker’s Magic…). For the most part, I can always count on her to tell an engaging story, sweeping me away by breathing new life into the classic fairytales I love and weaving in bits of little-known mythology that I pounce on like a 9 week old cat. The only thing I’ve ever had to complain of with her is a slight difference in our vocabularies…she prefers the definition of “witch” as “one who has magical capabilities, inborn, natural, or inherited,” while I prefer to use other words. Where I come from, “witch” always means black magic, so call yourself an “enchantress” “wizardess,” or invent a new term so readers don’t get confused. Still, Zahler’s witches don’t actually do black magic…so I can’t complain too much.
The Marvelwood Magicians is not one of her delicious fairytale retellings. Like her usual fare, it comes with a gorgeous cover and good writing, but the medieval setting and girls in long dresses have been swapped for a circus complete with a troupe of performers, two tigers, a cozy wagon, trapeze artists, and the mind-reading Mattie.
Me: (pauses reading) Circus book? Like with elephants and tigers and seeing the world?
Me: (settles back more politely after rude interruption) Do tell on.
Confession: I harbor a secret love for the idea of the circus.
I have never been. This irks me to no end. But I see so much that’s familiar in the circus to my beloved Renaissance faires–the life on the road, the taste of adventure and dust on the breeze, the performing, the strangeness of it all to everyday life. Learning the circus was a dying art just as I was discovering it crushed me…and it’s one of the reasons I knew I had to get The Marvelwood Magicians as soon as I could.
The story poses a delightful question: what if the people who pretend to be magicians and mind-readers, fortune-tellers and illusionists, actually could do what they said?
Enter the Marvelwoods, center stage. But before you get too excited, be forewarned–having magic abilities when the rest of the world doesn’t isn’t always what you expect it to be. And sometimes, it’s worth pretending you aren’t so special after all.
Second confession: I love real-world fantasy stories that admit things can go terribly wrong.
Watching characters with amazing gifts struggle to fit in, or even understand the real world can be so refreshing. And I did mention it’s in a circus, right?
But before you think the book is perfect…
In the midst of enjoying the adventure, I couldn’t help noticing…isn’t this the same plot as A True Princess that I read so long ago?
- Girl must deal with problems of identity.
- Girl must stand alone to protect her friends.
- Girl must have dramatic confrontation with villain.
- Girl must save everyone, not just her particular friends.
I realize that sounds fairly generic, and I guess it is…but I couldn’t help thinking about the echoes of A True Princess as I read the final scenes of Mattie’s adventures…and hoping for something new to emerge.
That small flaw aside…
To be perfectly honest, there’s a lot I fell in love with about The Marvelwood Magicians. The whole idea of being different because of who you are and finding a place to belong, and of being more comfortable on the road than in a little house with a green front yard–those things speak to my soul.
I remember going on road trips as a kid and everything being different. You know you’re in the same place for all of a few hours. You might never see the same people again, and even if it’s just a small town, it’s all entirely new.
You see things in a different light.
And if your home is the road, like it is for the Ruh players in The Name of the Wind or the Marvelwoods in the circus?
I’ve wondered sometimes what it would be like. You’d be at home everywhere, because everything was familiar, and everything new.
I never tire of hearing stories like that. Sometimes I think that wandering blood might be my own.
So for all of us who worry about losing the circus, for all of us who have never been, and for everyone who never gave up on the possibility of magic, there’s The Marvelwood Magicians.
Go read it and believe in unbelievable wonders again. Not somewhere far away. Believe in them in your own backyard, and down the dusty road to a place you’ve never noticed, in people you’ve never met.
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