Review: A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane

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Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series began in 1983 with the publication of So You Want to Be a Wizard.  With changes in publishers and long gaps between books, the series has some timeline issues, and some readers are finding the first books out of date.  Because of these issues, as well her concerns about the quality of her writing nearly three decades later, Duane started updating the first four novels in the series. She gets into detail on her reasoning on her blog. Duane then ended up revising all nine currently published books in the series. The sixth book and focus of my review, A Wizard Alone, received the most changes, primarily around the representation of Darryl McAllister, a young autistic African-American wizard introduced in this book.

A WIZARD ALONE at GoodreadsPrior to and while working on the rewriting of A Wizard Alone, Duane noted that she intended to make significant changes to the portrayal of Darryl and his autism—quite a bit has been learned since the book’s publication in 2002, both in terms of the science and in terms of Duane interacting with Autistic people directly. On Tumblr, Diane Duane interacts with fans and their posts, and these active fans include many Autistic readers. While for legal reasons she can’t read everything posted about Young Wizards, particularly fan-written fiction in her universe, there is quite a bit of interaction between author and readers on Tumblr. While working on the revisions for A Wizard Alone, she actively sought out Autistic people’s thoughts on Darryl, reading reviews and in some cases responding to them.  Even after the publication of the New Millennium Editions, Duane continues to respond to Autistic readers, some of whom may not be aware of the updated versions which currently exist only in ebook form.

Because the portrayals of autism between the two versions are very different—among other things, Darryl is “cured” of his autism in the original, while in the New Millennium Editions he explicitly refuses the chance to leave his autism behind—reviewing them sequentially makes the most sense. I start with the original, 2002 edition.

The first time we hear of Darryl McAllister, we aren’t told he’s autistic. One of the two main series protagonists, Kit, is meeting with a more senior wizard and is asked if he could check in on the kid, who has apparently been on Ordeal, a sort of initial test for people who are becoming wizards, for over three months, far longer than is typical. Nita, the other protagonist, meets Darryl through dream contact shortly thereafter, though she doesn’t find out that the person she’s in contact with is the same one Kit is meant to check in on for some time—or even if the person is from Earth!

Kit and Nita’s interactions with Darryl differ significantly throughout the story. The first time Kit contacts Darryl directly, Darryl is leaving school and is seen to bang his head repeatedly into the window of the van he’s leaving in. That’s perhaps a slightly stereotypical autistic move, but it’s something plenty of us do. I’ve done it, on occasion. More concerning is Kit’s reaction: “Since when do the Powers That Be dump an autistic kid into an Ordeal?

We then follow Kit into Darryl’s mental landscape. At that point, his mind is a battleground between Darryl and the Lone Power, an entity responsible for the creation of entropy and death. This mindscape is shown often as a dark, barren, or scary place, appropriate to a troubled mind. Within this mindscape, Kit experiences sensory overload repeatedly, and each of these experiences rings true.

Still on Kit’s side of the story, we see direct information about autism, as he goes and researches the subject after meeting Darryl. However, this information seems to be the guesswork and research of non-autistic people. Within the narrative, this is explained by Kit’s mother, who is a nurse: “The problem is that there are probably as many kinds of autism as there are people who have it, and not enough of them come back from that side of things to tell us how what’s happened to them looks or feels.” She’s totally right that autistic people are all different from each other, but there are similarities, and the assumption that someone needs to “come back from that side of things” in order to explain it is flat-out wrong. It’s also dangerous. It ties in with the assumption that someone who can speak for themselves by definition is too different from the autistic person who doesn’t for their experiences to be applicable.

On Nita’s side, we meet Darryl as he makes contact with her in dreams. Her initial assumption is that an alien, possibly a machine intelligence more like those in contact with her younger sister Dairine, is attempting to make contact. She is not aware that she’s communicating with Darryl, the same child Kit has been checking on. After it’s resolved that Darryl is organic and not machine, Nita’s attempts to understand him lead her to question if he understand plurals (sometimes) and if his communication with her is intentional (unknown).

We can also get a sense of Darryl using his autistic hyperfocus or perseveration in the battle he fights—he is convinced that he must have the same fight with some Enemy (the Lone Power) again and again, the same way each time, but he is also willing to do so. The tactic approximates working, too—Darryl might be stuck in his Ordeal, but it is clear that the Lone Power is frustrated, and getting impatient long before Darryl becomes impatient.

Many of the ways Darryl’s autism show make sense, such as his hypersensitivity to some sensations and hyposensitivity to others, painful overload, unusual ways of speaking, and both hyperfocus and difficulty focusing at different times under different circumstances. His experience really does read much like an overloaded or burnt-out autistic person much of the time, with an idea that eye contact is painful (if not for typical reasons) and that other people often don’t make sense to him. However, people not making sense to him is portrayed in a way that doesn’t quite work. His alternations between seeming not to know that others exist and fairly tricky calculations involving the mental states of others, with no in-between states more like the difficulties predicting others that autistic people typically have, is confusing.

Over the course of the story, Kit, Nita, Darryl, and the senior wizards they work with are all shown to understand and question at least some of the assumptions made about autism, certainly a good thing. Inside Darryl’s mindscape, Kit realizes that he’s never given much thought to what autistic people could or could not do shortly after expressing surprise at Darryl’s attention to detail. Nita wonders if preconceived notions coming from knowing Darryl to be an autistic human may have affected Kit’s interpretation of Darryl’s mindscapes and translation into images. The Senior wizard is not aware of how wizardry would work for an autistic person, but at least acknowledges the possibility that Darryl may, in fact, be supposed to stay autistic. As for Darryl, he is aware of how others react to him, saying, “Everyone laughs. Especially the ones who don’t do it out loud; they do it the loudest.”

The parallels drawn between Darryl’s autism, Nita’s depression, and the changes in Kit over the course of the story (stated to be autism, but reading more like depression except while he is actually inside Darryl’s mind) are also of interest. Darryl’s experience with those who pity him being worse than those who laugh parallels Nita’s difficulties with students who try to act like she’s not currently mourning her mother, who died about a month prior. Even though the reasons that Darryl and Nita experience “the pain of being alone” are different, they can empathize with each other’s experiences. The connection between Nita starting to recover from her depression and Darryl leaving his autism behind, however, is problematic. Depression and autism are not, in fact, the same thing, and treating the idea of reconnecting with the world after depression-related isolation as similar to suddenly being not-autistic doesn’t really work.

I mentioned earlier that the Senior wizards in the story don’t seem to be aware of autistic wizards. Getting rid of the autism is shown as a likely goal within Darryl’s (currently stuck) Ordeal. Why haven’t autistic wizards been seen before? The possibility that this unknown way of being a wizard is the end goal is at least considered, but the fact that it is somehow new is concerning—autism is not new, and wizards would presumably be on the spectrum at about the same rate as the rest of the population. Considering the similarities between hyperlexia and the traits that make a good wizard, I could even understand autism being more common in wizards than in the general population. (Besides that, Nita’s younger sister Dairine displays autistic traits as well. She’s just not diagnosed.)

Another concern is Darryl’s status as an abdal, a concept similar to a saint, whose power rests partially on his innocence. The trope of autism as otherworldly or supernatural is a common problem, along with the idea of disabled people having some sort of special innocence. When Darryl is presumably the only autistic wizard known, the likelihood that he is also the one current abdal for Earth is absolutely a representation of this trope.

The overarching story of Darryl McAllister’s (temporary) autism in this version of the story is also worrisome. It is given to him by the Lone Power, inventor of entropy and death, around age eight. It seems to be an attempt by the Lone Power to prevent Darryl from being a frustration to him later, but it doesn’t work. When Darryl becomes a wizard, he uses his autistic traits as a chain and effectively wraps the chain around the Lone Power. That’s actually really cool! But given the opportunity, Darryl then chooses to ditch the autism. Autism was around just long enough to be used as a plot point, then removed via magic. The idea that we must put aside fear for courage and death for life, when it is right to do so, a core piece of the Oath all wizards take, is used to argue that Darryl must return to the world.

That’s all the original version, though. The New Millennium Editions are significantly different. When Kit first meets Darryl and realizes he’s autistic, he still reacts with shock that the Powers would dump and autistic kid into an Ordeal. However, this time the Senior wizards point out that “wizardry’s hardly limited to the neurotypical.” Kit’s research on the subject of autism is different too. In addition to checking out books from the library (we’re not told what kind of books), Kit is reading blogs written by autistic people and their families. In a complete reversal from the idea that not enough “come back” to tell what it’s like, we’ve got Kit reading things that people are writing while autistic. The recognition of autistic voices is all too unusual, and I am quite impressed with the addition! Kit also notes that the information he has about autism is written by non-wizards, probably a result of using the local library and Internet rather than search functions in the manual—given that wizardry’s not limited to the neurotypical now, there’s presumably autistic wizards writing about the intersection somewhere!

The troubled landscapes Kit encounters in Darryl’s mind do not change here, but the reasons for them do. These are no longer purely a reflection of autism, but intentional works created by Darryl for a specific purpose. The purpose might not be initially clear to Kit, an outsider watching a confrontation months or years into the battle, but he’s aware that there is an intentional purpose. In the last universe of Darryl’s creation, we even get to hear the purpose from Darryl himself: it’s meant to trap the Lone Power in what’s effectively a nastier version of the burnout he’s been experiencing over the last few months.

Kit still picks up on some pieces of how Darryl views reality, as he did in the older version, but instead of that being bad in itself, the concern expressed is that Kit doesn’t know how to deal with that. Kit’s difficulties are also shown as possibly related to Darryl’s status as an abdal and related ability to be in two places at once, rather than purely a function of Darryl’s autism.

The history we’re given of Darryl’s autism is also different. Rather than suddenly turning inward at age eight, he was diagnosed at four and has been having much more trouble over the six months or so prior to the start of the story. Rather than the Lone Power giving Darryl autism in an attempt to prevent him from becoming a wizard, we find out—from Darryl, who’s well aware of what he’s doing—that he thinks the Lone Power made everything get harder recently because “It was trying to take [him]out of the game before something happened.”

Finally, the ending is extremely different. Darryl’s autistic traits are referred to explicitly as a strength, when he notes that he is really good at concentrating on things. Disadvantages are noted too, of course, like Darryl not realizing he’d already passed his Ordeal because he was too busy concentrating on his internal battle, keeping a fragment of the Lone Power occupied as long as need be. Darryl is still offered the chance to ditch the autism, if a bit less explicitly than before, but this time he rejects the option. He draws a comparison to Solitaire, where you play the hand you deal yourself. While he doesn’t know for sure that there’s a particular reason he’s autistic, it’s the body and mind he’s been dealt and he’s going to play it for real. Besides, it’s him. We even get a taste of Darryl’s sense of humor, which absolutely includes joking about his neurology and turning what people say about his neurology against the presumably neurotypical.

Then, after the conflicts are over (at least temporarily), we get to see Darryl again. He’s not in burnout anymore, so he’s able to do more, but he’s still autistic. Certain kinds of speech are harder than others. The edits made in subsequent books of the New Millennium Editions include making sure that Darryl remains an Autistic character when he appears. He can and does get overloaded, needing to take a moment to recover. It’s not the constant overload of his prior burnout, but it’s something he has to work around. In these versions, Autistic readers get to keep our canon character who gets stuff done.

In the end, I wouldn’t call the original version terrible. The outside descriptions of what autism are don’t work, and the complete picture of what Darryl does doesn’t work, but most of the individual pieces … at least can happen. He acts like an autistic character in some sort of crisis, like a severe burnout, which it would be reasonable for him to be dealing with under the circumstances. The big problem is the temporary nature of his neurotype: autism doesn’t work that way. We temporarily got an autistic character that was better than most, in that he was valuable while autistic. If the New Millennium editions didn’t exist, I might even recommend the old versions.

However, the New Millennium Editions do exist, and they are far better. From a disability representation point of view, I absolutely recommend the new editions, and knowing that the new editions exist, I steer people away from the old versions. Why take a temporary representation when we can get a character who stays Autistic?



About Author

Alyssa Hillary

Alyssa Hillary is an Autistic writer and activist who blogs at Yes, That Too. In addition to blogging, sie writes short fiction, typically with disabled characters, and analysis of neurodivergent representation in other people's fiction, both canonical and fan-recognized. Sie has presented at the Society for Disability Studies annual conference and at Debilitating Queerness. When not doing disability stuff, Alyssa is also working on a masters degree in mathematics and enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee.

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5 Comments

  1. Colorful_Socks on

    I really enjoyed your review of this. A wizard alone was the first book I’d read with an autistic character that was the hero, let alone one with such an active role. It really surprised me! Turns out I read the original version first.

    I’d recently been hunting scifi and fantasy with ethnic main characters, esp. native american, and it’s been a fair challenge. Speculative fiction is all about describing what could be, based on what is, and ‘what ifs’ can be far too limited when all the main characters are white straight males from a euro american cultural setting. I was a little embarrassed to realize I didn’t include any kind of disability in my hunt for alternate perspectives. I would think now that autism makes for a different perspective! It just never occurred to me. (Darryl is also African-american as well as autistic, which I felt balanced nicely with the Caucasian and Hispanic main characters. Once I clued into the excessive “whiteness” of much of scifi, noticing character demographics and hunting for variables has been something of a hobby.)

    I thought it was so impressive that Darryl was autistic in the first place, (although I was disappointed when he was cured, as he seemed to get a lot of this strengths from his condition) but I wanted to see how much Diane Duane got “right.” This is where I came across your review and learned about the revision! I really want to read the new version now, especially since it seems to address a lot of the questions I had about autistic wizards and does away with the disappointing ending, where magic cures Darryl and he becomes “normal.” The ending felt just a little too similar to certain christian fantasy stories where gayness is curable; not a feeling I’d associate with a Young Wizard’s book.

    Thanks again for your informative review!

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