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Literature / The Real Boy

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The Real Boy is a 2013 middle grade fantasy novel by Anne Ursu.

Eleven-year-old Oscar is a shop boy who works for Caleb, the most powerful magician on the island of Aletheia. Although he's seen as simple-minded, he likes his job of gathering, grinding, and preparing herbs for Caleb to use in his work. But something has gone wrong with the island's magic. Two apprentices are gruesomely killed in what is assumed to be a magic accident, and the wealthy children in the walled city of Asteri are coming down with bizarre ailments. Oscar works to solve the mystery with the help of his new friend Callie, the apprentice healer.

The Real Boy contains examples of:

  • Baby as Payment: An example with an older child. Callie was born on the east side of Aletheia, where there is no magic. Her younger brother Nico had a problem with his immune system, which the local healer couldn't do anything about. Her parents hired Mariel, the healer from the west side of the island, who told them that their son would need regular treatments from her in order to stay alive. They couldn't afford it, so Mariel agreed to treat Nico in exchange for taking Callie back to her village. Now Callie works as Mariel's apprentice. Mariel has told her that she can never go back to her family, or even contact them, or her brother will be allowed to die. She later learns that Mariel scammed her parents. Her brother died two years ago, and no one told Callie.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The inhabitants of Asteri are known as the shining people. They are always flawlessly beautiful, with elaborately coiffed hair and skin and eyes that seem to glow. They wear clothes made out of magic cloth that never wears out and jewelry enchanted to bring good luck.
  • Better with Non-Human Company: Oscar understands cats and is extremely knowledgeable about herbs, but he finds people incomprehensible.
  • Big Guy Rodeo: When a monster made out of dirt suddenly attacks Caleb's shop, Crow the cat leaps onto its back, but the monster throws Crow off.
  • Can't See a Damn Thing: One sick boy from Asteri woke up in the morning unable to see or hear.
  • Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: Two City girls go into Caleb's shop to ask for potions to enhance their fortune-telling abilities. One of them carelessly swings her purse and knocks over some tinctures from the shelf, and the other yells at Caleb for shelving the bottles carelessly. Oscar thinks that there was nothing wrong with the way the tinctures were shelved as long as no one hit them with their purse, and doesn't realize he said it all out loud until Caleb yells, "Oscar!"
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Oscar has given most of his cats reasonably creative names, except for one tomcat named Cat.
  • Eyes Always Averted: Oscar can't bring himself to look people in the eye, and feels an overwhelming resistance when he tries. When he's forced to interact with the public, people think he looks shifty and accuse him of hiding the truth about how the apprentices died.
  • Fixing the Game: Caleb sells enchanted decks of cards, labeled "strictly for entertainment," that can be used to cheat. It's illegal to use them while gambling for money, so Caleb sells magic detection systems to casinos, and doesn't tell the owners that his own decks of cards are enchanted to go undetected.
  • Golem: Caleb carved over fifty children out of wood from the wizard trees, magicked them to life, and sold them to rich families in Asteri. His pitch was that they would never get sick and never suffer. Unfortunately, the spells he used started to wear off and conflict with each other, resulting in the children's illnesses. Oscar creates a concoction that can get the spells to work with each other, but he doesn't know if it will eventually stop working.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The wizards all turned themselves into trees, sacrificing their lives but not their essences, so that their roots could infuse the soil with magic that could end the plague that otherwise threatened to end all life on Aletheia.
  • Identity Amnesia: Ronald, one of the sick kids from Asteri, has lost all his memories and no longer recognizes his mother. He later loses the ability to form new memories, too.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Oscar has named and befriended all the cats that live in the basement of Caleb's shop.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Aletheia used to be home to powerful wizards. When they died, they turned into trees whose roots infused the ground with magic power, giving all the plants in the forest magical properties. After the wizards died out, there were sorcerers, and after the sorcerers, there were magicians. Now the magicians are on the decline, too. Although nearly everyone born in West Aletheia has some magic abilities, Caleb is the first person in a generation powerful enough to be called a magician.
  • Meaningful Name: Caleb's cruel apprentice is named Wolf. Sometimes Oscar feels like he really is a wolf in disguise as a teenage boy.
  • Non-Verbal Miscommunication: When Callie visits the shop with Mariel, Callie keeps raising her eyebrows at Oscar, to his confusion. He never learns exactly what she was trying to tell him.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Oscar has vague but horrible memories of his time in the orphanage on the east side of the island. He's blocked out most of the details, and trying to remember anything upsets him.
  • Picky Eater: Oscar eats bread and sometimes cheese, and nothing else.
  • The Plague: A devastating plague struck the island long ago, killing not only people but also animals and even plants. Large swathes of Aletheia are now uninhabitable wastelands.
  • Recruited from the Gutter: Caleb tells Oscar why he took him from the Children's Home, instead of all the other children available: because the wards told him that Oscar would never get picked. Caleb needed someone who would work hard and be loyal, and the best way of ensuring that was to take a child no one else wanted.
  • Security Blanket: Oscar carves a wooden cat he names Block. He carries her around and squeezes her to calm himself. At the end he gives her to Sophie, saying, "She's nice to have when things aren't safe."
  • Signature Scent: Callie smells like licorice and hazelnut oil.
  • Troubled Fetal Position: The night after Bonnie and Wolf are killed, Oscar sits huddled in his bed, hugging his knees to his chest.