Goodreads: The Real Boy
Published: September 24, 2013
Oscar lives a contented life grinding herbs for his master the magician in a little village just outside Asteri, the perfect city where the chosen people dwell. Then one day a monster awakens in the woods and a mysterious illness begins attacking the children of Asteri. With his master gone, it’s up to Oscar and his new friend Callie to stop the monster and save the children.
The Real Boy begins promisingly as a rather standard middle-grade fantasy featuring the slightly awkward apprentice (or, in this case, herb grinder, which is even lower than an apprentice) who unexpectedly must take up his master’s work when evil strikes. However, though the usual ingredients are there, from the bullying older apprentice to the smart and friendly girl-next-door who will undoubtedly be there to help save the world, The Real Boy quickly signals its intent to take its tale in an unusual direction. Rather than focus on an external, physical threat to the community, the story offers a sort of moral tale that reflects on power, discrimination, fear, and greed all wrapped up in a fight against a mud monster and a potential plague.
Though normally I enjoy middle grade works that attempt to offer a deeper moral dimension, The Real Boy attempts to cover too much ground to be a truly compelling tale. It begins by focusing on Oscar, who seems like he might have autism–and that’s phenomenal. Rarely do characters like Oscar appear in literature and rarer still is it for them to be the protagonist. His struggle to understand the unspoken social codes around him all while really wanting to focus on the monster terrorizing his village is truly touching and makes him human without ever making him seem weak. However, the story quickly moves from Oscar to address class discrimination, human trafficking, greed, possible detrimental effects to the environment, and more. This might have worked had the story stuck with one plotline–the monster in the woods–but then Oscar and his friend Callie are suddenly sidetracked by a potential plague and the pacing just falls apart as the children get bogged down in two separate mysteries.
The characters, however, are really compelling. I sympathized with Oscar and his desire to be left in peace so he could work by himself at his job and so he could read. And I appreciated the beautiful friendship between him and the healer’s apprentice, Callie. Outspoken, determined, and completely the opposite of Oscar, Callie always accepted her friend as he was, though she was quick to offer to tutor him in social codes so he could feel less awkward. Together they make a fine team, a supportive team.
Notably, the book also offers some diverse characters. Aside from Oscar, readers also have Callie who has darker skin and the people from the “perfect” city. These perfect people have darker skin. Of course, prejudice still exists–the rich city people look down upon the poorer village dwellers–but it it is a unique book that says that characters of color can be beautiful and diverse (since there are so many of them, none bears the weight of representing all people of color).
Still, the compelling characters are not enough for me to overlook the slow and uneven pacing, the muddled plotlines, and the loose ends with which the book leaves readers. The Real Boy is a fair enough read, once, but I cannot say I would read another book by Anne Ursu based on my experience of this one.