Today I Read…High Wizardry, the New Millennium Edition

HIgh Wizardry NMEToday I read High Wizardry, the new Millennium Edition, by Diane Duane, the third book in the Young Wizards series. You can buy it from her ebookstore here.

Dairine has been jealous that her big sister Nita and Nita’s friend Kit are wizards–after all, Dairine is the huge Star Wars fan! She should get to be a Jedi! But the new computer arrives today, so she’ll forgive Nita for now, because new computer!

But it’s got some kind of weird program on it–something that looks an awful lot like Nita’s wizardry manual. Suddenly Dairine has magic, and a whole universe to explore. So what’s a wannabe-Jedi to do but go hunting for Darth Vader? The problem is, when you go hunting for evil, you’re sure to find it…

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This was the book that I thought would need the most updating, since it contains so much technology that has changed over the last 20+ years. However, on reading it the book doesn’t really require as many changes as I thought. The technology functions the same way–it’s more the names and details. For example, instead of listening to a Walkman Nita now uses her mp3 player on the moon. She still listens to Steve Perry, but she adds Coldplay and Pink CDs to her room instead of records. The new computer no longer uses DOS, but it still runs the same programs, just with more familiar names to this generation of readers (most of whom are probably going “what’s DOS?” Be glad you don’t know).

Dairine really becomes a fully fleshed character in this book. In the previous ones, she was the annoyingly smart little sister–here, she is still the annoyingly smart little sister, but she gets to explain why it’s so important for her to be smart. Dairine knows that knowing things can help you understand the universe, and help protect you from getting hurt. Knowledge is power, and Dairine needs to know–reading and computers are her ways to help her know. Fiction, nonfiction, science, mythology, computer science, martial arts–she wants to know, and she wants to know now. And this need gives her a way to connect with the race of computer wizards that she helps to be born–they want to know too, and Dairine gives them everything she has and everything she is, because she understands that need. I think every reader knows that need–just one more chapter, because I need to know what happens next.

Maybe that was the Lone Power’s problem all along–It didn’t like the chapter It was reading, when the other Powers refused to listen to It’s ideas, so It stopped reading the book. It kept peddling It’s ideas about death and pain and loss to all of the species, and It tries to convince the computer wizards to stop all life everywhere instead of letting them change as they will. It’s not until Dairine comes along and convinces them that different life is still life that It is defeated and redeemed and begins to change. I love the Lone Power’s sister–Athena was always my favourite Olympian. She ties together various archetypes and mythologies, and makes it clear that they are the same story, and that the story has been going on for a very long time, and that now it is time for the arc to end–time for the devil to return to heaven and help unmake his work. But the story still isn’t over, because there is a lot of cleaning up to do. It’s a nice idea–that evil can always be redeemed, if good is willing to offer it a chance, and if evil is willing to take that chance.

I’ve been reading and rereading this series for more than 20 years, since I first found So You Want to Be a Wizard in my public library in elementary school. (Yes, I read the Oath out loud. No, I never became a wizard. Yes, I still read it out loud every so often and hope this time it works.) It’s still my favourite, and every time I read the books I think of something new–something I never thought of before, because I am different than the last time I read it. Duane is working on book 10 right now Games Wizards Play, according to the Young Wizards website. There’s no estimated publication date yet, but I can’t wait–but I will, because I know that it will be worth waiting for.

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Like so many other human beings, Dairine made her first major decision about life and the world quite early; at the age of three, in fact. She’d seen Nita (then six years old) go away to kindergarten for the first time, and at the end of the day come back crying because she hadn’t known the answers to some of the questions the teacher asked her.

Nita’s crying had upset Dairine more than anything else in her short life. It had instantly become plain to Dairine’s three-year-old mind that the world was a dangerous place if you didn’t know things, a place that would make you unhappy if it could. Right there she decided that she was not going to be one of the unhappy ones.

So she got smart. She started out by working to keep her ears and eyes open, noticing everything. Not surprisingly, Dairine’s senses became abnormally sharp, and stayed that way. She found out how to read by the time she was four… just how, she never remembered: but at five she was already working her way through the encyclopedias her parents had bought for Nita. The first time they caught her at it—reading aloud to herself from a Britannica article on taxonomy, and sounding out the longer words—her mom and dad were shocked, though for a long time Dairine couldn’t understand why. It had never occurred to her that you could use what you knew, use even the knowing itself, to make people feel things… perhaps even to make themdo things.

For fear of her parents getting upset and maybe stopping her, until she was five or so Dairine kept her reading out of their sight as much as she could; for the thought of being kept away from books terrified her. Most of what moved Dairine was sheer delight of learning, the great openness of the world that reading offered her, even though she herself wasn’t free to explore the world yet. But there was also that obscure certainty, buried under the months and years since the decision, that the sure way to make the world work for you was to know everything. Dairine sat home and busied herself with conquering the world.

Eventually it came time for her to go off to kindergarten. Remembering Nita, her parents were braced for the worst, but not at all for Dairine’s scowling, annoyed response when she came home. “They won’t pay attention to what I tell them,” Dairine said. “Yet.” And off she went to read, leaving her mother and father staring at each other.

School went on, and time; and after Dairine sailed her way effortlessly through the first couple of grades, she was put into an advanced track. She knew (having heard a couple of her mother’s phone conversations with the school’s psychiatrist) that her mom and dad were concerned about this. But Dairine had gone out of her way to charm the poor guy, as well as taking time to impress upon him that he wasn’t dealing with some fragile flower, but a strongminded kid who had no intention of letting the older ones in the same track steamroll her. Once the new track placement took effect in third grade, she started to relax a little: having (as it were) received her school’s stamp of approval—as if she needed it—nobody would now find her reading habits unusual.

Then Dairine was able to really let her reading cut loose. Every day after school, she would hit the little local library (right across the street) and soon enough had read everything in the kids’ library downstairs at the rate of about six books a day. Then—after the concerned librarian got permission from Dairine’s parents—she read through the whole adult collection, a touch more slowly. Her mom and dad thought it would be a shame to stifle such an active curiosity. Dairine considered this opinion wise, and kept reading, trying not to think of the time, not too far away, when she would exhaust the adult books (for she wasn’t yet allowed to go to the big township library by herself).Still, you could always order them in by interlibrary loan, and from much further afield… even from the New York Public Library, where there were eight million volumes on tap. Dairine admitted that it might take even her a while to work through all of those.

Then, though, things changed seriously in two very different ways. First, the little local library finally got its computers installed—simple downmarket machines though they were—and its Internet connection going: and her life shifted dramatically as she was released into whole new realms of knowledge, fresh and immediate, that gave even the books a run for their money. And second, Dairine started to notice mass media, and a whole new sheaf of dreams abruptly came alive.

In reading straight through the children’s library she’d ingested a huge number of folk tales and fairy tales. They hadn’t had that much effect on her. But when she first got a taste of the new trilogy of Star Wars movies, a peculiar upheaval took place in her heart; one that made her half crazy until she’d seen all the old ones, and left her desperately excited for the new, even the animated “Clone Wars” film that had just come out. Magic, great power for good and evil, she’d naturally read about in many other places. But the Star Wars movies somehow hit her with a terrible immediacy that the books had not; with a clear picture of power available even to the young sons of slaves or untrained farmboys on distant planets in the future, and therefore surely available to someone who knew things in the present. And if you could learn that supreme knowledge, and master the power that filled and shaped the universe, how could the world ever hurt you? For a good while Dairine’s reading suffered, and her daydreams were full of the singing blaze of lightsabers, the electric smell of blasterfire, and the shadow of ultimate evil in a black cloak, which after terrible combat she always defeated. Her sister teased her a lot less about it than Dairine expected.

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She never found out anything about the man who helped her. Nor did he ever find out anything more about her. Pausing by the door of the pay toilet, after being released from station security some hours later, and being telepathically sensitive (as so many hominids are), he could sense only that some considerable power had been successfully exercised there. Satisfied with that, he smiled to himself and went on about his travels, just one more of the billions of hominids moving about the worlds.

But many millions of light-years later, in some baking wilderness under a barren, brilliant sky, a bitterly weary Dairine sat down on a stone and cried for a while in shock at the utter strangeness of the universe, where unexpected evil lives side by side with unexpected kindness, and neither ever seems quite overcome by the other….

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Somewhere someone struck a bass gong: the sound of it went on and on, and in the immense sound Dairine fell over, slowly, watching the universe tilt past her with preternatural slowness. Only that brief flicker of her own senses was left her, and the bass note of one of her heartbeats sounding and sounding in her ears. Other senses awakened, filled her full. The feeling of living in a single second that stretched into years came back to her again; but this time she could perceive the life behind the stretched-out time as more than a frantic, penned, crippled intelligence screaming for contact. The manual software had educated the motherboard in seconds as it would have educated Dairine in hours or months; the motherboard had vast knowledge now, endless riches of data about wizardry and the worlds. What it did not have was first-hand experience of emotion, or the effects of entropy… or the way the world looked to slowlife.

Take it. Take it all. Please take it! They have to choose, and they don’t have the data, and I don’t know how else to give it to them, and if they make the wrong choice they’ll all die! Take it!

And the motherboard took: reached into what she considered the memory areas of Dairine’s data processor, and read her total life memory as it had read the manual.

Dairine lay there helpless and watched her life—watched it as people are supposed to see it pass before they die—and came to understand why such things should happen only once. There are reasons, the manual says, for the selectiveness of human memory; the mercy of the Powers aside, experiencing again and again the emotions coupled with memory would leave an entity no time for the emotions of the present moment. And then there is also the matter of pain.

But Dairine was caught in a situation the manual had never envisioned—a human being having her life totally experienced and analyzed by another form of life quite able to examine and sustain every moment of that life, in perfect recall. With the motherboard Dairine fell down into the dim twilight before her birth, heard echoes of voices, tasted for the first time the thumb it took her parents five years to get out of her mouth; lay blinking at a bright world, came to understand light and form; fought with gravity, and won, walking for the first time; smiled on purpose for the first time at the tall warm shape that held her close and said loving things to her without using sound: found out about words, especially No!; ecstatic, delighted, read words for the first time; saw her sister in tears, and felt for the first time a kind of pain that didn’t involve falling down and skinning your knees….

Pain. There was enough of it. Frustration, rage at the world that wouldn’t do what she wanted, fear of all kinds of things that she didn’t understand: fear of things she heard on the news at night, a world full of bombs that can kill everything, full of people hungry, people shooting at each other and hating each other; hearing her parents shouting downstairs while she huddled under the covers, feeling like the world was going to end—will they shoot each other now? Will they have a divorce? Finding out that her best friend is telling other kids stories about how she’s weird, and laughing at her behind her back; finding that she’s actually alone in the world when she thought she had at least a couple of people to stand beside; making new friends, but by force, by cleverness and doing things to make her popular, not because friends come to her naturally; making herself slightly feared, so that people would leave her alone to do the things she wants to without being hassled. Beating her fists against the walls of life, knowing that there’s more, more, but she can’t figure out what it is: then finding out that someone knows the secret.Wizardry. And it doesn’t come fast enough, it never comes fast enough, nothing ever does…. and now the price is going to be paid for that, because she doesn’t know enough to save these lovely glassy creature, her buddies, that she watched be born… helped be born… her children, sort of. She doesn’t know how to save them, and they’re going to be dead, everything’s going to be dead: pain!

It hurts too much, Dairine thought, lying there listening to her heartbeat slowly begin to die away. It hurts, I didn’t want them to get hurt! But it was part of the data, and it was too late now: the motherboard had it, and all the mobiles would have it too, the second she released Dairine. Why should they care about slowlife now? she thought in anguish and shame at the bitter outrush of what her life had been. Cruelty, pettiness, selfishness almost incredible— But too late now. The motherboard was saving the last and newest of the data to permanent memory. Any minute now the mobiles would start the program running and entropy would freeze, and life would stop being a word that had a meaning. The last nanosecond crawled by, echoes of the save rolled in the link. Nothing ever comes fast enough: end of file…

Dairine lay still and waited for it all to end.

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Kit sighed. “I wish Peach were here, we could have asked her.”

There was a brief silence. “Oh,” said a voice, “I’m not that easy to get rid of.”

And she was in the midst of them. Not Picchu. Or—was it not? The presence among them now might look human, though very tall, and she might not be winged… but there was still a sense of swiftness about her, rather like the sense you got about Picchu when you realized she was going to make a grab at your sandwich and either get a piece of it, or a piece of you. Swiftness, and power, and extreme beauty, so that Dairine and Nita were abashed, and both they and Kit stared at the new apparition with all their eyes. All this in a person burning even brighter than the light around them, and about nine feet tall; a person wearing a sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up, and blue jeans and sneakers, a person with long dark hair, and a sword naked in her hand, and the sword burning; and the fire of the sword and the fire of the sky were the same.

“You’re kidding,” Dairine said.

The woman laughed. “Often. But not at the moment.”

“You were Picchu?” Kit said.

“I’ve been a lot of people. You’d be surprised at the names.” She looked down with concern at the Lone One, who lay like a shadow on the burning ground. “But rarely have those namings turned out so well.”

This was a bit much for Nita. “You’re one of the Powers, aren’t you? We dragged You halfway across the Universe and busted our guts when You could have— Why didn’t You do something sooner?”

“We have been, for billions of years,” She said. “But We couldn’t do anything really permanent until Dairine got here.”

Dairine’s jaw dropped.

“And now,” She said, “if My brother here is amenable, We can start getting work done at last.”

Kit stared at her. “Your brother? Not much of a resemblance.”

“I told you I’ve been called by a lot of names.” She knelt down by the shadowy form that lay collapsed on the brightness. “Nearly as many as he’s been. Athene was one of mine. And Thor. And Prometheus. And Michael.”

“But you’re a girl!”

Nita threw Kit a wry look. The Power grinned. “These things are relative,” she said. “But even in your world it’s a byword. Men will fight bravely and be heroes, but for last-ditch defense against any odds… get a Mother.” She smiled. “Ask Dairine.”

Dairine, wiping her eyes, grinned back.

“I was the Winged Defender,” She said. “He was my twin brother, the beautiful one. Then… the disagreement happened, and there was war in Heaven, and all the roles changed. I led the others in casting Him out.” She shook her head sadly. “But I always wanted Him back… as did all the other Powers as well. So my role changed again. I became Prometheus, and many another. I was sent to you again and again, to put the Power in your hands: wizardry, and other powers. I never had to steal it: it was given me—from what Source, you well know. I had to help undo the evils my brother was doing, and again and again I intervened, in many worlds. But We had a plan: that one day, someone else would intervene, and He would stop doing them himself. All it took was the entropy He himself had invented….”

She looked at Dairine. “Billions of years, it took. All the redemptions there have ever been went toward this; from the greatest to the least. And finally in the fullness of time you came along, and took my role, of your own will, and woke up a race powerful enough to change the whole Universe, and gave them the fire.” She glanced up at the mobiles and smiled. “How could he resist such a bait? He took the gamble: he always does. And losing, he won.”

“He killed you, though,” Kit said.

“I struck him down once. I had to come where he could do the same to me, without my doing anything to stop him. Now the balance is even.”

The Defender reached down and put a hand into the shadow. “And we are going where such matters are transcended… where all his old pains will shift. Not forgotten, but transformed. Life in this universe will never have such a friend. And as for His inventions… look closely at Death, and see what it can become.”

The long, prone darkness began to burn, from inside, the way a mountain seems to do with sunset. “Brother,” the Defender said. “Come on. They’re waiting.”

The light began to shift. Nita looked up and around in wonder. The planet seemed to be going transparent around them. Or not specifically transparent: it was as if, one by one, other vistas were being added to it; seacoasts, forests, landscapes she couldn’t understand, cities, empty spaces that were dark and yet burned; ten other worlds, twenty, a hundred, in an ever deepening overlay that enriched without confusing. Alternate universes? Nita thought, and then thought perhaps not: it was too simple an explanation….

She looked at the Defender and found the same change and enriching in Her, and in the steadily brighter-burning form She bent over. Nita felt inclined to squeeze her eyes shut, not from pain but from a feeling of sheer insufficiency, of being involved in matters too high for her. “Never think it,” said the Defender, beneficent lightnings flickering about Her as other forms and other attributes came and went in glory; “never think We were made to be less than equals in the One. Someday you’ll surpass Us, and still be Our equals, and both You and We will rejoice at it. But later for that. Brother, get up now and see the way home. Let them see what they have triumphed over.”

The Lone Power rose up, slowly, like one discovering walking after a life of lameness. And Kit and Nita and Dairine all gazed, and speech left them. Nita’s eyes filled with tears as she wondered how darkness could be so bright. Lightbringer He was, and star of the morning; and like the morning star, He needed the darkness, and shone brighter for it.

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