YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
Best of Lizzys,
Oh, lord. This book.
It starts off so promising, but it never succeeds in becoming more than a shallow, fluffy story intended to reassure the children who read it that (a) actions don't have consequences, (b) all problems can be instantly and completely fixed by someone else, and (c) everyone in the world will either be an adoring friend or a nameless foe.
Sure, there's a market for this sort of child-comfort-read—but I'm very clearly not that market.
Thirteen-year-old Daine has always had a knack with animals, but it's not until she's forced to leave home that she realizes it's more than a knack — it's magic. With this wild magic, not only can Daine speak to animals, but also she can make them obey her. Daine takes a job handling horses for the Queen's Riders, where she meets the master mage Numair and becomes his student.
Under Numair's guidance, Daine explores the scope of her magic. But she begins to sense other beings too: immortals. These bloodthirsty monsters have been imprisoned in the Divine Realms for the past four hundred years, but now someone has broken the barrier. It's up to Daine and her friends to defend their world from an immortal attack.
Inhumanly Positive Character Interactions!
The plot: orphaned Daine and her pony Cloud descend from the mountains after a traumatic experience, meeting all kinds of new people and making their way in the world and developing friendships and yes, yes, that's great.
Friendship-related themes are fairly common in children's lit, and Wild Magic definitely has something going on there. I'm all for that! What I'm not all for are boring character interactions.
Fun (or, at least, interesting) interactions generally involve some kind of friction, right? Tension, in whatever form. But the characters in Wild Magic are all so brain-numbingly friendly.
Here, let me show you a few of Daine's first meetings with the other characters:
The knight Alanna
Alanna's group of warriors
Grumpy-looking Buri and intimidating-looking Sarge
Super-gorgeous Queen Thayet of Tortall
Young trainees Miri and Evin
Ridiculously handsome King Jonathan of Tortall
Have you ever seen so many smiling/kind/gentle/friendly characters in your life?
No. The answer is no, you have not. And there I sat, clenching the book and pleading for someone, anyone, to do or say something, anything, to create interpersonal conflict.
And then it happens! An almost-invisible character we were previously told is only happy when she's complaining says something nasty to Daine. That character then leaves the city, never to be seen again. As for the nasty thing she said: Daine's boss Onua (who, by the way, is the horsemistress for the Queen's Riders; Daine is her assistant) tells Daine to ignore it, which Daine does so completely that the whole incident may as well have never happened.
Lizzy, this is so boring.
Lessons Learned the Easy Way!
So, Trust your friends for help with your problems is a big message in this novel, and it's not a subtle one.
Daine has a Secret Traumatic Past (which I'll spoil in the next point) that is hinted at early on. The second chapter begins:
Less than a page later Daine decides:
Throughout, you see Daine's new friends looking sad about her refusal to disclose her obvious secret, saying things like:
So what prompts her to finally spill the details? Well, a badger has been visiting her dreams, spouting cryptic messages—culminating in this not-so-cryptic one:
She promises to tell her boss (Onua) and her magic teacher (Numair) her secret, but only because either (a) the badger mentally/physically/magically forced her to promise, which doesn't count as personal growth on Daine's part, or (b) Daine was so grossed out by his breath she would say anything to get away from it, which doesn't count as personal growth on Daine's part.
Maybe I'm being too picky, though, because she does have a moment of growth after Onua and Numair respond to her story with unconcerned affection:
So maybe it shouldn't matter to me that she's kind of forced into doing what (I feel) she should have chosen to do, since the end result was the same (learning her trust will be rewarded). But it's just so . . .
Well, imagine she's afraid to bungee jump, and she's cringing on the ledge saying, "Nope. Not doing it." Then her instructor, who's been telling her for hours to just trust her bungee cord and jump, loses patience and pushes her off the ledge. Sure, she falls and the bungee cord works, and she learns that she should've trusted the cord all along—but because she was pushed rather than choosing to jump, that moment of falling doesn't represent a change or growth in her character. Or, at least, not the empowered, powerful change/growth I'd like to have seen.
Maybe what matters is that she learns to trust, not how she comes about it. Not everyone changes as a result of choosing to jump, after all. I just find I prefer stories about people who do make that choice.
But what makes the matter even more frustrating for me is how easily solved her problem is once she confesses her secret.
The conflict in Wild Magic is approximately 85% internal (Daine's issues with trust, identity, etc.) and 15% external (monsters released from imprisonment in the Divine Realms and now attacking the country of Tortall, presumably sent by a neighboring empire).
What seems to be the central conflict is Daine's fear of (SPOILER SPOILER) her magic going wild and making her lose her sense of humanity. It's happened before; she lost herself with a wolf pack for a period of time after her family was slaughtered by bandits.
The people of her village saw her with the wolves and proceeded with the Kill The Beast routine, and though she both escaped and regained her awareness of her humanity, she's been deeply scarred by the experience (with reason!). So she trusts no one, and tells no one what happened with the wolves.
Mr. Wizard Numair recognizes Daine's magic and begins to train her in its use—but the more aware she is of her own magic, the easier it is for her to slip out of her humanity and into what she calls madness. So Daine agonizes for chapters over her fear of her secret being let out, her fear of losing herself again, her fear of losing these new friends she's made.
When she does finally tell Numair and Onua about her past and her fears (at the badger's insistence, remember), what does Numair say?
That's right. "Well, that's easy enough to fix."
After all the agonizing about her secret, after being forced to share it rather than choosing to share it, Numair (essentially) laughs and says, "I can fix silly little problems like that in my sleep."
Numair tells her to meditate and focus on the magic inside herself.
It takes Numair maybe a minute to build a magical glass wall between Daine's core self and her wild magic, preventing the magic from tainting/obscuring her self.
And here I sit, underwhelmed. Why not have a murder mystery in which the teen protagonist—after a couple hundred pages—finally plucks up the courage to enter the police station and say, "Hey, I think my friend didn't run away. I think he was murdered," and the desk sergeant replies, "Yeah, we already caught the lady who did it"?
Yes, the point was that Daine needed to trust her friends enough to tell them what had happened to her, but that doesn't mean that once she tells them her problem will/can/should be magically solved in under two minutes, without any further effort on her part.
See, this is one reason why this book feels children's lit rather than YA: "Do the right thing and everything will instantly be okay." Or maybe: "Talk to an adult and all your problems will be miraculously fixed."
(And, by the way, I'd hoped that this glass barrier would be shattered at some critical moment near/during the climax, and over the course of the next few books she'll have to learn to manage without it. But no. Of course not. Because this is the world of perfect magical fixes to every problem.)
Another Half-Hearted Theme!
Trust is not the only theme that I'm having a problem with; there's also the Be yourself without regard to the expectations of others theme.
Daine's the only female in her mother's family not to have the Gift (a certain form of magic), much to her mother's consternation and disappointment. Daine is, as a result, very touchy about the subject of the Gift, and her lack of it. (And by "touchy" I mean she fairly explodes with angst whenever she hears the word "Gift.")
Yet rather than coming to terms with her lack of Gift and moving on, she broods over it until she finds out she just has a different kind of magic. A super-rare, super-cool magic. So rather than Be yourself without regard to the expectations of others, Daine learns Be yourself without regard to the expectations of others BECAUSE YOU'RE SPECIALER THAN ALL OF THEM AND IF THEY KNEW HOW SPECIAL YOU ARE THEY'D TOTALLY FAINT:
Obviously it's necessary for the story that she have this magic, and I'm probably being too picky again, but this strikes me as the easy (and dull) use of the Be yourself idea. "Be yourself even when it's difficult" is significantly more powerful and interesting than "Be yourself because you're a special magical snowflake whom everyone will love," don't you think?
Another Poorly-Taught Lesson!
First, let me explain what happens in the story's final quarter.
Daine and company (including Onua, Queen Thayet, the knight Alanna, Mr. Wizard Numair, and all the youngsters training to become Riders, the country's elite mounted troops) arrive at Alanna's home castle (called Pirate's Swoop), where they're surrounded and besieged by troops and mages and immortal monsters sent by the evil neighboring empire. There are maybe 100 warriors inside the castle, and over 600 surrounding them—not counting the immortal monsters, mages, and siege machines.
Due to Daine's magic, she's the recipient of every animal's affection and loyalty (basically), so all the animals in the area want to help the besieged Daine by fighting her enemies. She won't hear of it. Like so, when George, the baron of Pirate's Swoop, asks:
George's response? He pats her arm and smiles and says (to paraphrase), "Well, just have them keep watch and tell us when the enemy's troops are on the move."
They're about to be slaughtered to a person. They have no chance of surviving without the animals' assistance. And George smiles and pats her arm and doesn't press the issue.
Daine endures a few variations of this conversation with other people, and spends a great deal of time and energy forcing the animals of Pirate's Swoop not to fight:
She eventually tells Onua why she won't let them join the battle:
Realizing how selfish she's been, Daine directs the wild animals (and the enemy's mounts) in systematic sabotage that gives the good guys an advantage.
At this point in the book I'm thinking, Okay. One of the animals Daine is closest to will sacrifice themselves in the course of battle, and Daine will have to deal with the reality of letting her friends choose to fight for her. There will be crying. I'm ready for this.
And then . . . nothing happened.
Well, okay. A dragon arrives and sacrifices herself, but neither Daine nor I were emotionally attached to the dragon, so her sacrifice didn't move me. And anyway, she was replaced by her newborn daughter, whom Daine adopts; the loss of the adult dragon means nothing when the void is instantly filled by something even better (a baby dragon! to raise and play with! so cute!).
Shortly after the dragon's death, Daine's pony Cloud climbs the stairs to where an exhausted Daine stands on an open-air deck, and I'm immediately bracing myself for Cloud's death—especially when the Number One Evil Immortal Monster (a bird/human hybrid with feathers made of knives, more or less) arrives a moment later. Daine's so worn out she can barely move, much less avoid the monster's impending attack. But rather than bravely sacrificing herself to protect Daine, Cloud presses herself against Daine's side and . . . magically transfers energy to Daine, who's then able to lift her bow and kill the monster.
Now, I didn't want Cloud to die, but I was rather disappointed when she didn't.
The good guys win in short order, and Daine passes out from exhaustion for a couple days.
As for the wild animals Daine was so desperate to keep out of the battle? We don't learn about their fate until the epilogue:
She was certain she'd be traumatized by any animal's death, but when she's told some did in fact die, she doesn't blink.
I can only conclude that the lesson here is: Let others make their own choices, even if you're afraid you'll be hurt as a result—because, ultimately, you won't be hurt, so letting them choose doesn't actually affect you.
Really, this book fails spectacularly at delivering/following up on its lessons.
Although there wasn't anything overtly romantic in Wild Magic, I felt a vague concern that Daine and Mr. Wizard Numair's relationship was heading into Dangerously Inappropriate territory. So I read some summaries of the other books in this series, and yep. They definitely fall in love.
The problem: Numair is twice Daine's age. In Wild Magic, Daine is thirteen and Numair is in his late twenties (age not specified beyond that). When they finally confess their love during the fourth book, Daine is sixteen and Numair is in his early thirties (age not specified beyond that in the summaries I read).
I feel the need to shower.
Wild Magic's ending is predictably warm and fluffy: the king and queen of Tortall (Jonathan and Thayet), the Lioness Alanna and her husband Baron George, and Mr. Wizard Numair all cheerfully argue over who gets to provide Daine (and her adopted dragon daughter) a home.
Really, there's nothing wrong with this—but it's all so pat and perfect that I immediately imagined a dumb family sitcom conclusion: all of them laughing together, then freezing in frame while the music plays and credits roll.
That's how this book felt to me, a dumb family sitcom where there are no hard lessons, no painful consequences, and everyone is everyone else's buddy. A lot of people love those sitcoms (if any of you are reading this, I'm sorry I called them dumb), and certainly a lot of people love this book. It just . . . wasn't for me.