Book Review: Magic Street, by Orson Scott Card

A college professor picks up a derelict by the side of the road on his way home from work one day and quickly discovers that the homeless man isn’t what he appears to be—when he gets home, the professor finds his previously not-pregnant wife in the throes of delivering a baby, which the derelict collects and departs with. Nobody except the professor remembers the event afterward. Later, a teenage boy discovers the baby abandoned in a plastic bag at a local park. The child survives and is taken in by a neighborhood spinster. He’s given the name Mack Street, and as he grows up, it’s apparent that his oddness goes well beyond the circumstances of his birth. Mack Street can see other people’s dreams, and when some of those dreams begin to come true in horrific ways, Mack and his neighbors in the L.A. suburb of Baldwin Hills begin to realize that strange forces are at work in their community, and reality is a whole lot stranger than any of them expected.  There’s a war going on that’s as old as time itself, and Mack Street is caught in the middle of it.

In Magic Street, Orson Scott Card has woven some difficult issues of modern American community and culture, and one of his favorite themes, the alien, messianic child, into a contemporary fairy tale that fleshes out an obscure reference in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There will be some spoilers toward the end of this, so stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

Upward Mobility: Card wrestles with a tough, un-PC issue in contemporary American culture: the alienation of upwardly-mobile minorities. The good people of Baldwin Hills have escaped poverty and achieved a piece of the American Dream, despite many obstacles, but they feel uncomfortable about it, as if they’ve sold out or betrayed their fellow people of color in some fashion, losing touch with a shared culture of struggle against adversity that once defined them. He doesn’t offer any solutions other than the insight that being mistreated by society isn’t a good reason to cultivate hatred and pass that mistreatment on to others. As Dr. Seuss might say, a person’s a person, no matter how small (or what color, or how loud their street bike is at 3 am).

Street Cred: Card  strives for authenticity in his depiction of Black characters, and mostly succeeds, I think, but sometimes it seems like he falls back on stereotype. C’mon, a “Yo mama’s so fat…” sparring session?

Titania is Not a “Hoochie Mama”: Authors and playwrights are continually trying to update Shakespeare, and it almost always fails. The characters feel awkward when taken out of their cultural context. Card’s concept is very creative—I liked the way he put the little fracas over the “changeling child” from Midsummer Night’s Dream into an accessible context, but in my opinion, it still didn’t have enough momentum to escape the gravity well created by putting Shakespearean characters in modern dress. Titania’s a queen, not Queen Latifah, though that’s an amusing mental image.

Some Editors Don’t Recognize Me, So I Carry the Orson Scott Card: Regardless of the quality of the writing, if a non-marquee author tried to pitch a fantasy story in which Shakespeare’s fairies interacted with the real world, I expect they’d get shot down because it’s already been done—a lot. OSC can get away with it because, well, he’s OSC. Yes, I’m whining, but it’s a complaint about the publishing world, not this book. I suppose it’s nice that somebody gets to take a fresh cut at a venerable trope.

If You Can’t Blind Them With Brilliance…: What caught my interest and kept me reading this story was the “What the Heck is Going On Here?” factor. Once Card gets past the initial strangeness and lets the reader into what’s happening, it’s a fairly conventional ride. Confused Messiah Kid and Sidekicks Save the World. I’ve been down this road so often I know how many telephone poles there are.  The writing is masterful, but the story didn’t grip me. It was, frankly, hard for me to get too excited about or feel much sympathy for supernatural characters who were arbitrarily wanton and cruel. “The Devil made me do it” has never been a convincing defense, Puck’s charm and Oberon’s self-inflicted schizophrenia notwithstanding, and there are way too many real babies being set out with the trash these days. The image didn’t just shock, it shut me down. Card’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” finish doesn’t satisfy, either. If I were the folks in Baldwin Hills, I’d be surfing the Net for a good paranormal liability attorney, not basking in the afterglow of a rockin’ dance with the Faerie Queen. I’d have gladly left this entire Faerie court penned up in the underworld where they couldn”t mess around with innocent people, who have enough problems without super-powered delinquents warping their reality. Get an eternal life, y’all.

Bottom Line: Magic Street is an entertaining, well-written story, but the central conceit of bored immortals using humans as playthings/pawns in their everlasting war wasn’t appealing to me. Explicitly drawing a parallel between Mack’s situation and the Incarnation didn’t help me, either—it’s not the same thing, not at all.

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