Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Review of The Magician of Hoad by Margaret Mahy

I like serendipity, and I like Margaret Mahy. Put the two together, and I'm a very happy camper! So on Veteran's Day, I made the pilgrimage to Pasadena to cruise Vroman's, one of L.A.'s best bookstores. When I walked up the YA aisle all unsuspectingly and saw a new book by Margaret Mahy, I grabbed it with such an ecstatic smile that a passing mother with a toddler probably thought I was having a religious experience.

Later that day, I plopped myself down in my favorite reading spot and read The Magician of Hoad from cover to cover.

Just finding the book felt like serendipity to me, but there's more. First of all, I had just finished writing a new book, and the one and only literary reference in it is to a Mahy classic called Changeover.

Then the day after coming across Mahy's new book, I got my Horn Book Magazine in the mail and discovered that the lead article is an interview with—Margaret Mahy! HB's review of The Magician of Hoad follows in the review section. Fate obviously intended that I write about Mahy this week...

In all fairness, I will attempt to explain my current state of delirium. That is, some writers are good, some are really good, and some are Writers. Margaret Mahy is a Writer.

Her style reminds me of Cynthia Voigt's work, if you'd like a comparison.

Mahy's mastery of language is stunning. Read some of her work, and a lot of the books you thought were well written suddenly won't seem quite that strong anymore.

The author also has an intricate way of looking at the human heart, and at human interactions. I like the way she thinks about story, as quoted in the Horn Book Magazine interview:

[T]here's no end to story. The world suggests stories as you go along. You see things happen or you hear something said, and sometimes these things extend themselves into stories. It's partly because of being a reader, I think. Reading is very creative—it's not just a passive thing. I write a story; it goes out into the world; somebody reads it and, by reading it, completes it. [Horn Book Magazine, November/December 2009, 606-607]
The Magician of Hoad has an epic feel to it. It has that whole hero-and-friends-defeat-villains thing going. But it's really the biography of a magician, which is a fairly bold move in the world of fantasy. We are accustomed to having magicians and wizards dropped on our heads randomly, as a matter of course. We don't often explore the nature of their evolution as people who contain magic. (Books about training, e.g., the Harry Potter series, don't count in this regard.)

Margaret Mahy traces the experiences of a boy named Heriot Tarbas who must find his place in the world. He knows his place in his family, or thinks he does, and when he is carried off to serve the king, he quickly learns his place in the castle. But that isn't enough for Heriot, who feels his different selves shivering through his bones like ghosts and wants to make sense out of them.

In her Horn Book interview, Mahy mentions that this book was originally some 800 pages long; it ended up at a mere 300 or so (on her computer, not in print, it seems). Which explains occasional transitions in which five years pass in a paragraph. But I didn't find this bothersome—the scale of the book simply swept me forward.

Like much of Mahy's work for older readers, The Magician of Hoad is not an easy book. It's markedly mature: it's a fairly dense read that expects us to think and even feel. It also has some violence, as well as a little sex.

Mostly the book is about people. In addition to Heriot, we meet various conflicted characters: a reluctant king who must enforce his desires for peace, three princes whose longings tend to be destructive, a noble girl who clashes with her politically minded father, a corrupt hero, and a street urchin who will become Heriot's closest friend.

None of these relationships are simple. For example, Heriot and the youngest prince have a magical connection, but are they using each other, or are they good for each other? Or both?

Perhaps the most intriguing characters here are the villains. The Hero is ambitious and untrustworthy, but why? And eldest prince Betony Hoad is an odd counterpart to Heriot. The prince wants, not political grandeur and power, but magic at the very least. He demands that the entire world become more exciting than it is, stranger and more glamorous. This is one of the oddest achilles heels you'll ever come across in fiction, but it finds echoes in a modern world in which the lures of celebrity and heightened experience call to so many people, promising the impossible.

When The Magician of Hoad begins, Heriot is a twelve-year-old farm boy living near the island which is the demesne of the King's Hero, Carlyon. Heriot is considered semi-crippled because of the fits he has had growing up. These make him sound as if he were epileptic, but there is another explanation, as we learn later in the book. Heriot has an experience which begins to free his magic, but next he has a vision, and people start gossiping about his abilities. Soon Lord Glass comes to take him away. Heriot flees, only to have a frightening encounter with Carlyon.

Despite his best efforts to stay at home, Heriot ends up being taken to the King. When he meets Prince Dysart, who is considered mad, Heriot learns that this is the boy he has seen in dreams over the years—and who has seen him in return. Dysart is comforted to find out that he's not crazy, after all, and he latches onto Heriot with great need and fervor.

Heriot becomes Magician to the King, which means he must act as a human lie detector and occasionally puts on magical shows for honored guests. He feels that his gifts are meant for a different purpose, but life conspires to keep him in the castle. He does make friends with Cayley, a young thief from the city streets.

In time Heriot and his friends face great treachery, and Cayley's own secrets and goals are revealed. But mostly, we as readers watch over Heriot, wondering if he will lose his mind—or find his truth.

I said that Margaret Mahy is a wordsmith. Here's a description of Prince Dysart, as Linnet (the nobleman's daughter) first sees him:

He had rough, wavy, mouse-colored hair that stood on end like a puppet's wig, a big nose, and a wide smile. His right eye was a light clear blue, while his left was hazel, so it was as if two different people were looking out of the same head. As she came into the tent, he caught her expression and burst into wild laughter. Later she was to think someone had stolen part of Dysart's life, and he filled the empty space by laughing, and that she had been able to tell this from the first moment she ever saw him.

Then there's the quote shown on the back cover, describing a moment when Heriot has just performed a great act of magic:

A wind composed of light and the breath of dragons beat through the company, rustling carefully assembled clothes and tangling hair, and there in the dimness Heriot began to shine. The broad planes of cheek and forehead remaining dark, the lines from nose to mouth and the creases of his eyelids etched on the night with fine lines of fire, each hair a thread of silver, lifting with reluctant grace when the wind blew. He appeared to be not so much contained by the air as embroidered on it.

If you are a serious reader, and especially a serious reader of fantasy, I suggest you take the time to meet Heriot Tarbas, the Magician of Hoad.

Note: Other books by Margaret Mahy you might want to take a look at include Carnegie Medal winners Changeover and The Haunting, as well as The Tricksters, Catalogue of the Universe, Memory, 24 Hours, Alchemy, and Maddigan's Fantasia. The author has also written many marvelous picture books, most recently this summer's Bubble Trouble, which further demonstrates her amazing facility with language.


Charlotte said...

I don't generally do Challenges, but I am thinking that after my Cybils reading I am going to have a "Fill in the Gaps" Challenge of authors I have never read but really should, and I will add Mahy to my list!

Kate Coombs said...

If you read nothing else of hers, read Changeover, which out-paranormals the entire current crop of paranormals!

Jennifer said...

Hmmm, I had randomly dumped this on my tbr list from a brief review - I can see now that it is quite a bit more serious than the fantasy I usually read, but I want it nevertheless! And my library definitely needs it. My fantasy fans are SERIOUS. But, more book? When is it coming out? Is it funny? When can I put it on my library's order list? When, when, when?

Kate Coombs said...

Jennifer--Well, like I was telling someone else, Margaret Mahy's imperfect book is still far better than most writers' very best. Let me know what you think!

The new book is called Curses. I just sent it to my shiny new agent (Brenda Bowen), so it is not yet sold, but I'm really excited about it. It's a YA mystery/adventure/paranormal, but no vampires--I promise! I suspect the earliest it could come out is next fall. We can be impatient about it together! :)

Terry Doherty said...

I'm not usually a fantasy person, but this sounds intriguing. I like stories with "odd Achilles heels." PS - When I first saw the cover, I thought it was a young John Travolta.

Kate Coombs said...

Terry--John Travolta, huh? I can kind of see that! Don't know if I'll ever be able to look at this book quite the same way again... --Kate