But it's been a long time since anyone who could call himself a wizard walked the world, and now that world is changing. Children in the city are falling ill, and something sinister lurks in the forest. Oscar has long been content to stay in his small room in the cellar, comforted in the knowledge that the magic that flows from the trees will keep his island safe. Now, even magic may not be enough to save it.
Oscar lives in a very limited world - mostly in the cellar of a shop. When he's not in the cellar, he sometimes ventures to the forest to gather plants, and rarely out into the marketplace. The narrative was pretty clear in suggesting that Oscar had agoraphobic or OCD tendencies, or possibly that he registered somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. What did that mean for Oscar as a character? It meant that decoding gray areas and human interaction were hard for him. And since the reader experienced the story from his perspective, much of it was hazy, vague, or simply unexplained. This added atmosphere and sincerity to Oscar's story, but it did not forward the world-building - and that is a hard bargain to make in the world of fantasy fiction.
Speaking of the world-building, what there was of it was well-done. When Ursu meandered out of fable-land and into reality, she described a world that was interesting and flawed, peopled with conflicted citizens and magic users. Ursu's plot played with a well-known fairy tale, but I was most intrigued by the details of the Wizard Trees, the plaguelands, Asteri (the city walled by magic), and the 'shining people' who resided in that city. In addition, the prose was quiet without being boring, and encompassed Oscar's narrow world and its truths while also describing the confusing complexity of humanity. And let's not forget Erin McGuire's illustrations! She made Oscar's experiences come to life.
As I mentioned above, my chief reservation was related to the vague, slightly unfinished feel of the story. It had the distance of a parable or allegory, no matter how vivid Oscar and Callie's interactions and arguments were. I wondered at points if I was missing the grand metaphor. Was Asteri meant to symbolize religion? Capitalism? I worried that I didn't get it. Now I wonder if I was overthinking it all? Perhaps younger readers would understand and accept the small gaps I noticed. I couldn't, but The Real Boy was still a beautiful, albeit perplexing, read.
Recommended for: fans of fairy tale retellings and fables, and those who like quiet fantasies that focus on character and a quest for truth.