Indistinguishable From Magic 

In its third decade, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series explores the magic of systems and words.

Illustration by Nick Drnaso

In the fantasy world of Diane Duane, whose cult favorite young-adult Young Wizards series began more than 30 years ago and continues this month with a new novel, the 10th, power is made manifest through Speech, a universal language a bit like Esperanto but much like math. It binds every living and nonliving thing, including crabgrass and single-celled aliens and comets and kitchen appliances. Magic runs on perfect description. To perform a spell, a wizard must articulate its desired effect, and exactly, through spoken or diagrammed Speech. This system of energy is tied to an ethical code, with an appealing clarity of purpose. Practitioners swear an Oath (Hippocratic-style) to use their art to “guard growth and ease pain,” and undergo an Ordeal in which they are tested by the (Satan-like) Lone Power who invented decay.

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone else who knew the Young Wizards series. But the smaller the fandom, the deeper its members’ affinities. Readers of Diane Duane—and these are longtime readers, spanning generations—share a basic understanding of how the universe works. It’s continually threatened by entropy and continually defended by the efforts of ordinary, decent people. As I got older, it surprised me whenever I met someone who was a fan. But it didn’t surprise me that those fans were poets and programmers. In these novels, systems inevitably run down, but properly understood, every problem has a solution. It just takes the right combination of words.

Weathering publisher upheavals and industry sea changes, these books have stayed in print despite never gaining mainstream popularity. Duane first introduced best friends Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez in So You Want to Be a Wizard, in 1983; they’ve been teenagers for more than three decades. The series’ longevity, along with its animating enthusiasm for technology, has made it peculiar. Its sensibility feels both prescient and dated, as if unstuck from time. In the third book, a character discovers magic by messing around with a sentient Apple IIc. By the ninth, characters text and use iPods. The slang never quite updates; the characters are social without social media. Still, their adventures have something to offer every kind of nerd: They fight pollution alongside cetacean colleagues, befriend Irish deities, design an artificial intelligence. They come just short of curing cancer.

Diane Duane.

Gary Jordan

The 10th and latest book, Games Wizards Play, opens in the middle of an active battle zone on the moon. At first it seems like Duane has jumped on the young-adult dystopian trend—but the violence is only a simulation, designed by Kit and his friends to keep themselves limber. This fake-out sets the tone. The whole book seems like a tactical deflation. Where the last few had whole alien civilizations at stake, this one follows an international science fair for preteen wizards. Aged out of competition, Kit, Nita, and Nita’s sister Dairine are sidelined as coaches to the kids who bend solar weather and neutralize earthquakes, “playing with dangerous natural forces as if they were Tinkertoys.” The competitors have their issues (chauvinist arrogance; domineering family)—but the plot’s kept oddly low-pressure. Chapters alternate between the characters’ various side pursuits: Nita grapples with disturbing, prophetic visions; Dairine apprentices with the kingly father of her missing best friend. Somewhat shortchanged by the story, Kit mostly frets about the newly romantic charge to his longtime partnership. He has a lot of internal monologues, thuddingly italicized and capitalized, about Liking Nita That Way.

These subplots eventually converge, a little slapdash but satisfyingly enough. (How is not really worth spoiling.) Games Wizards Play is one of Duane’s longest books, and definitely her busiest. It’s crowded with cameos: Whales from Deep Wizardry swim leisurely through Chapter 2; a giant centipede befriended in A Wizard’s Holiday explains the glitchy interplanetary teleportation spells at Grand Central Station. Over time, Duane’s idea of power has leaned away from ritual and toward engineering. It’s said that every sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. Here, it’s the other way around.

The excess of detail can be tedious and mundane when she applies it to the tournament’s logistics, custom fonts, and leaderboards. But description—the building block of all fictional universes but especially this one—can also swell into ecstatic reverie. Take Nita’s response to the personified planet Jupiter explaining his relationship with neighboring Saturn as resonance: “The agreement was laid down in curtains of radiation and reaffirmed across hundreds of millions of miles in slight orbital aberrations and gravitational perturbations … two planets delicately and immaterially poking each other, stroking each other, fields interlacing at the greatest possible distances.” Sexy stuff for a novel where (spoiler alert!) the central human couple doesn’t so much as kiss until Page 587—and even then, mainly to shut each other up.

Judged by the conventions of YA—which wasn’t a marketing category, much less a genre, when Duane began writing—Games Wizards Play doesn’t have much of a love plot. It suggests, instead, that all friendship has inherent romance. Though side characters come out as gay or asexual, this is just extra data; Nita and Kit’s interest in sex is more conceptual than felt. Nor does the book quite deliver a coming of age. Nita and Kit have saved the world more often than the average high-schooler, but the Lone Power, which exists outside of time, can never be fully vanquished. Rather, each iterative encounter reveals a little more about the character of evil: its pathos, even its vulnerability. This narrative architecture—long, episodic, nonserial—puts a different frame on life. Growing up is accretive. Heroism is ongoing.

“All of wizardry, if looked at one way, is a never-ending game of catch-up,” Earth’s most senior wizard tells her younger colleagues. Maybe she speaks on Duane’s behalf. With “New Millennium Editions,” the author has been dragging her works into this century, imposing a “timefix” on the older books that straightens out the chronology and updates their technological and cultural references. Duane considers these changes a service to new readers (and to older, exacting fans), but this ordering instinct can make her fiction feel overly tidy, smoothing out its stranger wrinkles. Such retconning admits to a creeping fear of obsolescence but can’t really extend shelf life. It looks at a kooky, charming feature and sees a bug.

Especially when that feature, an outgrowth of the series’ open-ended curiosity, points to its great and uncommon lesson. Classically, fantasy ends when innocence does. Middle Earth is saved, but the elves all leave. Susan Pevensie is barred from Narnia. Even His Dark Materials, that secular humanist fairy tale, traps Lyra and Will in their respective universes of origin, rich with wisdom but bereft of each other. This narrative amplifies the reader’s impending loss: Once the pages run out, we too will be exiled from the realm of the story. There can never be another first time. The magic is essentially irrecoverable.

Not so for Nita and Kit. Knowledge expands their world, or at least makes it more intricate. Experience is always more appealing than innocence. And the fantasy never stops needing them.

Games Wizards Play by Diane Duane. HMH Books for Young Readers.

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