Review: Got to be a Hero

When Jagi asked me to write for Fantastic Schools I was a little hesitant. My schedule lately has been bursting at the seams. I’ll try to read for the blog, I told her, but chances are…

Well, last month I didn’t manage. But this month I have a fun read for you, aficionados of magical education. Paul Duffau’s Accidental Hero series gets off to a great start with Got to be a Hero. A solid YA read, I really enjoyed it, even while understanding that I’m not in his target audience. As a digression here, this is usually a mark of good young adult fiction: that it can be read by a broad range of ages and enjoyed. Young adult fiction ought not to simply be a slightly lesser vocabulary, avoidance of vulgar language (which many YA doesn’t bother leaving out anyway these days. The argument is that real kids swear, so why not have the fictional kids swearing?) and in theory at least, less sexual tension (reality is the opposite). Young adult fiction is about children developing into that tender age between being protected by their parents and being entirely on their own as adults. We know that developmentally speaking, teens are still growing physically, but also their brains continue to develop until the age of 25. This is a fluid time of life, with plenty of potential for conflict both external and internal, and a good YA book will capture some of that uncertainty and angst.

I’m not a huge fan of angst, I wasn’t even when I was a teen myself. Fortunately for me, there isn’t a lot in Duffau’s Got to be a Hero. Instead, you’ll find an interesting and well-built world where mundane Seattle has a secret world of magic users hiding in plain sight. There’s more to the series, of course, and I am looking forward to seeing how he wraps it all up, because in this opening sally he is setting up his protagonists and their relationship. Kenzie is a teen girl who is being carefully taught both martial arts, and magic. Mitch is a regular guy who is a tech wizard in a purely mundane way. Their worlds would never have collided unless Mitch did something heroically stupid and attempted to save Kenzie when he realized she was being abducted.

I’ll not get into the whole plot, since this blog is more about the school part of the book, but I’ll assure you that it’s fun, and while slightly predictable for me, that’s because I’m not really the target audience and I knew some of the tropes he was playing with. Still, it was worth reading. But to dive into the educational part… remember back a post or two when I was talking about how to teach magic in a ‘blended’ world where magic users mingle with the mundane? Duffau addresses this partly by not having his magic users develop their powers until they are a bit older – and rational enough to mostly use their power under safe conditions. He also sets up a solid ‘policing’ by the magic community that will ruthlessly weed out any who are using magic unaware or outside their rules. Which is part of the conflict!

The magical school is small and part-time. Kenzie attends ‘normal’ high school, but also spends many hours being taught martial arts (which enhances her self-control and discipline to handle her magic powers) and more hours in the magic school, located inside a sort of portal locked in a building. She and a handful of others are tutored by a master of the art there, and then given exercises to practice on their own. Mitch… well, I will let you read the book. He’s got a little different path and more one-on-one tutoring than any sort of formal schooling in magic.

Duffau’s world works well, but as an educational system it’s not got much to recommend it. Small class size, yes, but no standardized teaching. In a world where uneven powers are granted, that’s probably necessary, but it also leads to loss of knowledge in the long run. I’m reminded of Socrates lamenting books corrupting schoolchildren, because they weren’t memorizing the way they used to. Of course, we only know this today because Plato wrote everything down… in a book.

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