When I saw this book pop up on NetGalley, I was intrigued, because I enjoy a good MG portal fantasy. I figured that the Narnia comparisons were probably just there in the same way that any book with siblings discovering magic is compared to Narnia – but to my surprise, The Lost Magician is actually a pretty straightforward retelling of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I was ultimately pretty baffled as to why it was written.
Book: The Lost Magician by Piers Torday
Read before: No, but I feel like I have!
Ownership: E-ARC provided by NetGalley for fair review.
Okay. Here’s the plot. Siblings Patricia, Simon, Evelyn and Larry are evacuated just after WW2, to a big ol mansion in the countryside, owned by a mysterious but jovial professor. They (Larry first, then Evelyn, then all four of them) discover a mysterious door in a disused room that leads to a magical world where all fairy tale characters are real. The fictional characters are being oppressed by the tall silver queen of nonfiction, who believes only in facts and wants to end magic. Larry finds the fantasy side first and has tea with Tom Thumb. Evelyn finds the fact side first and swears allegiance to the queen.
All four kids enter the fantasy world and discover the war. They hang out with the three bears, who tell them that they are Readers, fated to help bring back The Librarian, who will defeat the evil fact queen. Evelyn sneaks back to the queen. The others go off through the woods to find The Librarian, and they meet the Green Man, who gives them each a thematic present…
Um… Is this sounding familiar to anyone else?
The first three quarters of this book are a straight retelling of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The parallels are so strong that I could not enjoy the story for what it was, at all. The story of Narnia is a cultural touchstone for so many; it’s practically in the national consciousness, so it’s not like people wouldn’t recognise the bones of the story. I cannot believe the dozens of reviews for this saying it’s a nice ‘nod’ to CS Lewis, when the story follows the original so closely. This has gone way, way beyond ‘an homage to’, ‘an ode to’, ‘inspired by’, or any of the other marketing phrases used to blurb it – it’s almost plagiaristic. It’s like when a kid copies a test and thinks if they just change a few words to synonyms, no one will notice that they’ve copied the whole thing. I could draw you up a chart of all the parallels.
There are two main differences in this book: one, there’s a huge focus on reading being the Best Thing Ever, and two, the horrors of war are much more present and spelled out. To deal with the latter first: I don’t even know how many times we were told that Evelyn had seen some dead bodies from a bombing. I’m sure this was extremely traumatising, but also, these kids lived in London throughout the entirety of WW2 – I’m fairly certain they all saw some pretty terrible stuff. The very fact that this one incident is referred to so often took all the power out of it, for me, as it made it predictable rather than shocking.
The focus on the power of reading also rubbed me up the wrong way. I mentioned in my review of Pages and Co that some books about readers can feel rather pretentious and worthy, and this is definitely one of them. The main villain of the book is the King of people who never read. Seriously. People who don’t read are portrayed as demonic, ignorant and cruel – oh, this is despite Simon, one of the main characters, being dyslexic and stating on page several times that he isn’t a fan of reading for pleasure. Then, all of a sudden, Simon has the revelation that reading is brilliant and he should just persevere… I found this, quite frankly, a little offensive. I’m a huge reader and have been since childhood, but I don’t think that I’m better than other people because of that. I don’t watch a lot of films or TV, because I prefer my stories in book form, so why isn’t the other way around just as valid? Simon likes to listen to the wireless, and listen to bedtime stories, and clearly finds fiction and imagination fun – I hated that he was portrayed as lesser because he doesn’t find the act of physically reading to be fun. To be clear, I think that Torday was trying to be inclusive by having a dyslexic kid in a book about books, but for me, it came off as almost the opposite. I’m actually reminded of the ongoing debate amongst the book community as to whether audiobooks count as ‘reading’ (spoiler, they do, and you’re a dick if you think they don’t).
The other thing that just didn’t click for me was the fact that the main conflict in the magical world was between fiction and non-fiction. Both are perfectly valid things to read! Many kids (especially, again, those who think they don’t like to read or struggle with reading) are much more likely to enjoy a factual book than one about rainbow unicorns (which, yes, feature here on the ‘good’ side). I love a non-fiction book. I remember reading the Horrible Histories books to death as a kid, just as much as my Diana Wynne Jones! To paint non-fiction as ‘bad’ is again, reductive and a tad offensive to readers.
I just… don’t really see the point of this book, to be honest. If you want a story about the impact of war on children, this is way too shallow to be meaningful. If you want a story about the glory of reading, check out Pages and Co. If you want to read Narnia? Just go read Narnia. I’m afraid that you can’t call something an homage if you’ve just straight-up copied it. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is fine, it’s nicely paced, the adventure is exciting and the kids’ personalities are nicely varied. But it’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It’s not a new book.