Diane Duane – So You Want To Be A Wizard

How did I not know about this series? I’ll answer my own question: the first book in Diane Duane’s series came out in 1983, the year I graduated from High School (you do the math, k?), and my mind was not on YA books at the time.

What did I find when I cracked open the first book, which carries the same title of the book within the book? A nice take on the Wizard trope by assigning a bullied young girl, Nita, to be the main character. I love the concept of a So You Want to be a Wizard book with the book that only appears to potential Wizards, and changes and updates itself like the internet (only LONG before the internet, of course). I like the fact that Wizards are beneficent. There is also to be a rather loud hint that the two mentor Wizards the kids find are gay…but I’m not 100% sure, but I have the feeling that’s what Duane was aiming for. It could go either way, and considering the era this book was released in (early ’80s) that’s not surprising. It’s a gutsy thing to write into a juvenile book in that era.

Nita is the protagonist of the series. She starts out around 13 years old, is a huge reader, loves the local library. She has a younger sister and two parents in what is a very nice home. She is also regularly beaten up by a gang of bullies (girls) for being something of a outsider and a reader and a smartmouth. She’s very much a loner.  She does find a male sidekick, with whom she mostly shares a very close friendship that rarely shies into mild touches of will-they-or-won’t-they, but that’s based mostly on how the other characters, mainly Nita’s younger sister, sees her friendship with him.

Another wonderful aspect of this series is that the kids live with their families. There are no orphans, there are no Dickensian situations, and for the most part, everyone is happy within their roles. Nita’s got the younger sister, and a mother and a father. Her sidekick has an older sister who’s learning Japanese via anime (although you don’t get to know that until a later book, I think). So, Duane broke the Orphan Adventures trope into bits.

With everything that’s good about the series and the first book in particular, there’s a particular aspect that gnawed at me. There’s a blonde girl bully who constantly terrorizes and physically beats up on the heroine to the point she has black eyes, limps and is truly in a lot of pain. I find it amazing that Nita’s parents wouldn’t take her to a hospital, nor check her out more thoroughly than they did (which is to say, not at all). Granted, this takes place in the early 80s, but still…Nita’s parents are too laid back about such rampant abusive bullying. And, although I understand the message that” forgiveness is good” and all, I thought it was a bit much when Nita, the bullied girl turned Wizard, invites her tormentor to her home after she saves the world. Forgiveness does not mean you have make nice and be friends with those who abuse you. That was the only message in the book I wasn’t happy with.

I do love how Duane turns the hero trope on its head and turns the boy’s role into a girl’s, in other words, giving the girl the heroes journey, for once and for real. Duane’s writing style is clear and transparent, her language is plain and transparent, and concepts are explained clearly and engagingly and hardly noticably at all. Nita also has a sidekick, who is a boy. When they work out their problems, they work on them together.

The antagonist of the series is what you could call a fallen angel-THE fallen angel, who has introduced Death into the framework of the universe. He is the main adversary in most of the books, in one way or another, because Duane is careful to say (on her own website and in the books themselvs) that this Other is in everything, everywhere, and it’s a constant battle to defeat it. You could call it negativity, disbelief or death or chaos. The dark side, if you’re Star Wars inclined. But the dark side never looked this appealing. And his main adversaries are children. Child Wizards in Duane’s Wizard universe are more powerful than the adult wizards, who must sit out the big battles on the sidelines. So You Want to be a Wizard is empowering for all children; and the most powerful aren’t necessarily the boys, either.

And here’s the website for The Young Wizards.

For cat lovers, Duane even has a spin-off series with Wizard cats (another sentient earth race) who monitor what is, essentially, a stargate from and to earth to other locations. The leader is female. I haven’t read them, but if anyone is inclined, please let me know what they’re like!


  1. says

    I can’t believe it’s been so long since I read So You Want To Be A Wizard. I was young when it came out and I read my library copy over and over again. I know I read at least up to High Wizardry.

    I haven’t thought about them in years, though. I should totally pick them up again.

    I loved all of Diane Duane’s books that I read. When I went to China, I only brought three books with me – one of which was one of her Star Trek novels, My Enemy My Ally. She writes such kick-ass women.

  2. Genevieve says

    I read the first two books in this series, but didn’t ever go beyond that. I fell so in love with Ed’Rashtekaresket t’k gh’shestaesteh, one of the new characters in book two, Deep Wizardry, that I couldn’t motivate myself to read more if he wasn’t in them. I’m strange. But it says something, doesn’t it–Duane was able to make readers feel for a giant killer shark from the beginning of time.

  3. meerkat says

    I just finished the second of the cat spin-off books, To Visit the Queen. I don’t want to comment on it too much because I’d give away the plot. It has been a long time since I read The Book of Night with Moon, but I think the composition of the cast has shifted a bit male for the second book, although the protagonist of both books is a female cat named Rhiaow. I guess I can’t talk about that without giving away plot points either.

    It is noteworthy that in cat theology, the Lone Power is also female. Also, there are dinosaurs. I just started So You Want to Be a Wizard a few days ago after realizing it was the same series as the cat books, so I am coming at it backwards.

  4. Izzy says

    Yay, Young Wizards! Though I agree with you about the deal with Joanne–it’s really a bit much. Fortunately, there’s not so much of that in later books.

    I keep meaning to read the cat books, but then can’t make myself: I’ve been around some of the more annoying parts of fandom long enough that any series based on the “cats are mystical and special” thing practically makes me break out in hives. Duane is good, though, and I trust her not to get all convention-cutesy about it, so I’ll nerve myself and pick one up someday soon.

  5. Gategrrl says

    Yeah, I’m allergic to the “mystical and special” cat vibe thing. You don’t have to be in fandom to see it: there are cats who help their owners solve mysteries and so on. Cat based aliens are amongst the most trite and overdone. But Duane seems to usually escape that preciousness.

    She does have a few chapters up for free on her website. After the first two didn’t sell well, she asked her fans if they’d like to buy it as a subscription as the chapters came out. So far, that plan has stalled, but you can read the ones that are up for free in the meantime.

  6. meerkat says

    I for one would like more books about cat aliens and magical fantasy cats. But if it helps, other species of animal are also eligible to be wizards, although the cats themselves have some difficulty viewing others, such as dogs, as equal (and as far as I recall, the only other species who got “screen time” were dinosaurs–oh yeah, and crows–and of course humans). Cats might be a bit special in their high level of ability to see the strings that make up the portals.

  7. Gategrrl says

    Oh, I have read the other books in the series, and thought the whale was spectacular! (I couldn’t find #2, though, so missed the shark wizard)

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