Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2008 | Features

The Magic Touch

By Emily Grosvenor
Move over, J.K. Rowling. An Iowa City author might just be the next big thing in children's fantasy literature.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a boy on the verge of adolescence proves himself possessed of a gift for magic, goes to wizard school, searches across 400 pages for a magic stone, and finds himself embroiled in a fight against a villain shrouded in darkness. A sequel is already in the works.

For Sarah Prineas, some elements of her new young adult novel, out this month from HarperCollins, bear something of a resemblance to that other boy wizard you might know. The similarities have some asking if she may help fill the gaping hole in the children's book publishing world left by J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series.

"J.K. Rowling is like the Beatles. She's like Star Wars," Prineas says. "There isn't going to be another J.K. Rowling, but she definitely opened up the bookshelf for the rest of us."

The Magic Thief tells the story of Connwaer (Conn for short), an orphaned street thief with a fierce independent streak who picks the wrong pocket in the novel's first pages. He apprentices himself to a curmudgeonly wizard named Nevery, a brilliant fellow who returns from exile to study the depletion of magic in the city of Wellmet. Much of the book hinges on Conn's harrowing search for his locus magicalicus, a special stone all wizards need to focus magic and create spells. Conn's sense of magic is exceptionally strong, but so are the evil characters—among them the thief lord Crowe—who thwart him at every turn.

Prineas, a part-time scholarship coordinator for the UI Honors Program, sold The Magic Thief to HarperCollins in 2007. It earned her a three-book series that's already nearing completion. By the spring of 2007, an Italian editor had fallen in love with the book, kicking off a foreign rights blitz of 13 countries that netted Prineas an advance far in excess of her original one. By last fall, buzz for The Magic Thief had grown so feverish that the publisher moved the publication date up a year and promoted the book to its lead title list. Now Prineas, a former English literature scholar, finds herself in the enviable but troubling position of being hailed as the book industry's next big thing.

"We were so excited about the book that we were ready to schedule a reading before it even came out," says Carol Sokoloff, 65BA, 73MA, children's book buyer for Prairie Lights in Iowa City. (The reading has been scheduled for July 16 at 1 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library.) Rarely do children's books receive such heightened anticipation, Sokoloff adds.

Prineas wrote the first chapter of The Magic Thief for Cricket, a literary magazine for teens and young adults, after reading a letter from a Cricket reader who wanted more stories about wizards and more serialized fiction. It was her first foray into writing for children. But when the voice of her 13-year-old narrator finally came to her, it resonated so strongly that she didn't even wait for the magazine to respond. She kept writing to see where the story would take her.

"It was like Athena rising from the head of Zeus," Prineas jokes of the character's hold on her.

From the very first sentence of The Magic Thief, it seems clear that the book is written not to feel like the Harry Potter series, but with subtle knowledge of his existence. "A thief is a lot like a wizard. I have quick hands. And I can make things disappear," Conn says in the book's first line.

Rote stock elements are where the similarities between the two boys end. Conn is a street kid, a thief prone to acting first on instinct and thinking later. Before connecting with Nevery and taking up at wizard school, he is illiterate and homeless. Once at school, he is an outsider, having not yet found his magic stone, the test of a true would-be wizard. His only friend is an older, red-haired student tutor named Rowan.

But where Harry Potter seemed burdened with his role, Conn rises to his, convinced long before his first spell that he is possessed of a mighty power.

"I wanted him to be special, but not for the reason people think he is," Prineas says. "Reading is his thing. At the heart he is a scholar, not an adventure boy."

Conn's narration gives readers a glimpse into the mind of a young boy as he struggles to find his place in the world, while Nevery, who writes journal entries at the end of the book's chapters, tells the greater story of Wellmet's changing political climate, of which Conn has no knowledge.

"Nevery is a bit of a riff on [J.R.R. Tolkien's] Gandalf," Prineas says, alluding to her favorite books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "He's a crank, a foil for Conn. They are a really good match."

Tolkien's work has meant a lot to the author, who first read The Lord of the Rings as a young woman, and then later as a UI instructor for an honors seminar.

"We talk a lot about the suspension of disbelief," Prineas says. "But Tolkien believed in the worlds he created. Fantasy writers have to believe in their worlds so that every detail is authentic."

The world in Prineas's book is described by a charmingly accessible narrator who never knows how much trouble he is actually in, tempered by the sobering adult influence of a caretaker who wants both to protect his ward and see what he is capable of.

Prineas knows the relationship between master and apprentice well. She's taught creative writing courses at the university level, and she now mentors high-promise students in her role as scholarship coordinator at the UI. She helps students compile their applications for prestigious awards such as the Gates and Fulbright fellowships, with special focus on the dreaded personal essay section.

"The hardest part is getting them to sound authentic when they are bragging about themselves," she says.

The budding mentor-apprentice relationship of her book enfolds in Wellmet, a city based on 19th century London. Nevery returns to a wintry Wellmet whose magic is weakening and whose wizards have no clue how to fix the problem. The plot of The Magic Thief turns on Conn's discovery that a villain has stolen Wellmet's magic—and that he must play a part in restoring it, thus saving his city from destruction.

Prineas is mum on the actual source of magic in her book. In her real life, though, she only has to think back to this past long, hard Iowa winter to imagine a world losing its sense of magic. For weeks, snow drifts blocked in the 1924 green Tudor cottage in the Manville Heights area of Iowa City where Prineas lives with her husband, John, a UI associate professor of physics, and their son and daughter. The neighborhood is a tiny literary enclave in a literary city where you can throw a coffee mug and hit two writers.

"Look, there's James Galvin walking his dog!" Prineas says, pointing out the window at the 1977 Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate and current UI Poetry Workshop instructor.

Despite the high-profile writing community she calls home, Prineas enjoys a relative obscurity in her hometown, in part because children's literature still has something of a pariah status in Iowa City, where literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction form the reigning triumvirate.

"No one here knows I'm a writer," Prineas says, laughing. "Genre and children's writers get no time in this town."

The path to the writing life rarely runs straight, and that case holds true for Prineas, who spent much of her career in academia as an English scholar before discovering her affinity for genre fiction.

Prineas began writing out of boredom in 2000 in Stuttgart, Germany, where her husband was completing a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Physics. On the many days when she found it difficult to concentrate on her dissertation, she would strap her then months-old son, Theo, to her chest and walk in the woods for hours.

"I was like Jane Austen—I became a 'desperate walker,'" she says.

During those hikes, Prineas began to piece together an adult novel based loosely on the topic of her research: 18th century drawing rooms and conversation culture in England. That novel never panned out—Prineas decided she just didn't like it—but the impulse to tell stories led the author to decide her calling had changed. She signed up for the Online Writing Workshop run by a group of fantasy publishers. The first story she posted was selected by the site's editors as a pick-of-the-month.

'When that happened, I thought: 'Maybe I can actually do this,'" she recalls.

In the online workshop experience, Prineas found a certain freedom in the stock characters and the structures of genre fiction—enough freedom to create new stories while also satisfying readers.

"I like knowing that good will triumph over evil in the end," she says. "The rest is just getting the character there."

She writes organically, following the book's three main figures on their journey. On days when she wrote, Prineas retold plot twists to her son and daughter at the dinner table, watching as their eyes got big as the story unfolded. Later, she outlined the structure of the book on a 12-foot-long roll of paper that stretches from her kitchen to her front door.

Writing for children in an age of competing entertainments isn't simple. Prineas says she structures every plot twist with her young readers' enjoyment in mind: "Kids don't really care for violence in their books, but they like peril."

Her book is also populated with strange places and names, objects and characters that may seem tailor-made for merchandising, but are also exactly the elements to which young readers gravitate.

"Kids love mastering the details of a new world and making them their own," Prineas said. "They take ownership of the text."

It's a widely understood phenomenon that kids need structure, but they yearn for freedom. They can find that freedom in books, Prineas says.

"Kids aren't free agents, the way Conn is," she explains. "They have parents, but they like to see what it would be like to be a kid and act as a free agent in the world."

Prineas will be finished with the second novel in the series by the time The Magic Thief hits bookshelves. In the meantime, she is spending her days helping brilliant students find new opportunities. She is memorizing the rune alphabet in her book so she can write secret messages to her readers. She is catching up on other young adult fiction after a pre-publication book tour, and she is focusing on what she seems to have a natural inclination for—telling stories that captivate young readers, as if by magic.