So You Want to Be a Wizard (Young Wizards #1), by Diane Duane
One day, while hiding from bullies in the local library, Juanita (who goes by "Nita") Callahan's finger catches on a thread on the binding of a book entitled, "So You Want to Be a Wizard." Despite many hours spent in the library, she has never seen this book before. Her curiosity piqued, she begins to read it and discovers that the book is an instruction manual for wizards.
The cosmology in the Young Wizards universe is complicated and we only get some of it in "So You Want to Be a Wizard." We find out that there are certain Powers (which are beings, not abilities) that are at work in the world. The Powers designed the universe and everything in it, each contributing an idea or invention. One invented light, another time, another gravity, and so on. One Power, known as the Lone Power, wanted to invent something totally unlike what his siblings invented. Finally, the Lone Power invented death.
And the Lone Power did not just invent the death of individuals. He invented entropy, which will one day result in the end of the entire universe. In what I have always interpreted as a very "Sleeping-Beauty"-type move, somehow wizardry was invented (maybe by a Power that had not made its contribution yet) as a way to increase the amount of order in the universe and, in doing so, to slow the death of the universe.
Wizards increase the order in the universe by mundane methods, such as paying their bills on time. However, they also use magic to fix things that have gone wrong. They do this through use of "The Speech," a language that everything in the universe, including inanimate objects, understands and responds to. Wizards have the ability to use The Speech to convince things to become other than what they are. For example, they can convince trees that are barren to bear fruit, or a locked door to be an unlocked door. However, the way you pronounce The Speech is vital. Simply by changing the way you pronounce a name in The Speech, the nature of that thing that is named will be changed. For this reason, it is very important to pronounce things correctly lest you inadvertently change them into something else.
And if you have the prerequisite talents and personality tendencies, you become a wizard upon taking an oath and passing a test, known as an "ordeal." Soon after having taken the oath, Nita meets another child wizard, Christopher Rodriguez, known as "Kit," a boy who attends her school. Together, they face their ordeal.
Their ordeal begins when they are trying to retrieve a pen that one of the bullies stole from Nita. They perform an imaging spell to show them where it is. They find the pen in a dark version of New York City. While they are viewing the pen, they attract the attention of the Lone Power and need to call on an outside source of energy to release themselves from Its grasp. The power source they attract is a "white hole," which is the opposite of a black hole. Where a black hole absorbs things -- light, gravity, energy particles, a white hole emits.
The white hole has an intelligence and a very long name, part of which sounds like the English name "Fred," so they call him "Fred." And Fred comes bearing bad news.
There is a book -- well, it looks like a book in our universe -- which lists everything that exists in that universe. Every person, every building, every animal, every plant, presumably every bacteria, amoeba, and so on. One can reaffirm the existence of anything in the universe, or restore it to its natural state, by reading aloud from this book.
The news that Fred brings to Nita and Kit is that the book, which goes by various names throughout the universes, but that humans call "The Book of Night with Moon," because it can only be read by moonlight, has gone missing.
And so it falls to Nita and Kit to go into the dark New York that they saw in their spell and retrieve the book.
Nita and Kit are merely the first of many beloved characters from this series that Duane introduces in this volume. We also meet Nita's family, the local Advisories, which is the next step up in the wizardry hierarchy, and, of course, there's Fred. Every time I read "So You Want to Be a Wizard," I get to meet all of these characters all over again. And I love them all over again every time as well. The characters are one of Duane's greatest strengths in this series.
Another strength is her ability to weave scientific principles into these books. The Young Wizards series is, to a great extent, science fiction disguised as fantasy. The wizards use their abilities to affect scientific principles.
Another thing that I love about "So You Want to Be a Wizard" is the foreshadowing. Several events that occur and things that are said early in the book bear fruit later in the book. And, now that I have read all of the books in the series at least twice, I realize that several things that happen in this book bear their fruit later in the series as well.
"So You Want to Be a Wizard" isn't perfect, however. There are a few mistakes. When they head off to the darker New York, they follow some instructions in a way that doesn't seem, to me, to match up with what they were told to do. For years, I was confused about the sequence of events and finally on this reading I sat down and stepped through it carefully. Additionally, the characters decide to take that specific course of action for one reason, but then end up implementing it in a way that is necessary for the plot but doesn't make sense given the motivation they state. Duane has made a new edition of "So You Want to Be a Wizard" to update the technology and fix some continuity errors that develop later in the series. I hope that she fixed these types of things while she was editing.
And now a personal story. My now-ex-husband and I used to listen to audiobooks in the car and we were just starting "So You Want to Be a Wizard" on one of my parents' visits. A year later, when we were in the car, and had moved on to a different series entirely, my dad asked me, "So, whatever happened to Juanita who wanted to be a wizard?"