Thursday, September 3, 2009
Whiny Kid Does Good
One of the hazards of being a parent is that when I read a book in which the main character has flaws I would despise in my progeny, I dislike him. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming stars Anand, a boy who has renounced his family to join a brotherhood of magical do-gooders. He spends the first few chapters whining that the other kids (who have been training for months or years) are better than he is at many of the magical exercises. Since he can't do these things on the first try, he assures himself that he will fail forever and should probably give up.
His friend Nisha actually had a good day, and is excited to tell him of her success. This is especially important to her, since she feels insecure as the only female in the society. Anand resents her success, wishes she had failed like he had, and never even considers feeling happy for her.
There is a magical crisis, and his favorite teacher is dispatched to deal with it. To Anand's shock, the teacher elects to bring along a competent senior apprentice, not our hero. Anand decides the world needs him, and convinces his reluctant friend and his magical object, the Conch, to join him on a hair-brained attempt to reach the teacher. The Conch sets him up to fail, and finally Anand is on his own to have some adventures. At this point the book picks up, and there are gambits and evil magicians and time-travel and Anand interspersing his whining with some courage and action. There are a few stumbles -- he finds his teacher, who begs him not to approach again because they are in great danger and the only way the evil magician can discover them is if they kept meeting. A few hours later Anand shows up again to relay some unimportant message and has his feelings hurt by being urged to go away already. But hey, boys will be boys. But at the end, when it is time to return home, his friend has the opportunity to stay. Remember, her position at the Brotherhood is precarious, and in this world she has the chance to have good friends and do good work. She wants to stay. Anand throws a tantrum, refuses to look at her, and whimpers for pages that he will miss her, never once thinking about where she could be happy or successful. At the last minute, she decides to return with them, and even the selfish prince says he'll miss her but he understands she has to go where she can be happy. This concern would never occur to Anand, because his vision of love is all one-way; it's how people make him feel and what they do for him.
On the other hand, the book has some interesting magic and a great setting; it's fun to have a fantasy set in India instead of generic Europe. And it's a real India, not a story book one -- the food and curses and clothes and details bring the setting to vivid life. Anand is an interesting kid; I would enjoy him if his flaws didn't push my buttons so hard. I'd give this book to my fifth grader to read, but it's the second of a series and he's a bit of a purist. B-