Root Magic, Eden Royce (Walden Pond, 978-0-062-89957-6, $16.99, 352pp, hc) January 2021.
Root Magic is an entrancing story of family love, legacy, and strength; of finding oneself; and preserving a connection to the past. Intended for ages eight through 12, the book can be thoroughly enjoyed by adults.
Vividly set on one of South Carolina’s marshy Sea Islands, the story begins on September 2, 1963, with the funeral of twins Jezebel and Jay Taylor’s beloved grandmother. They have much more to deal with than their grief. Gran was a respected rootworker who practiced the spiritual, healing, and magical traditions of the Gullah-Geechee people. With her death, their maternal uncle, Doc, also a rootworker, wants the twins to learn the lore. They are enthusiastic, but soon realize a lot of work and considerable risk is involved. They also are starting the school term with a number of new students from families who are better off than they. Plus, Jezebel has skipped a grade. Jay’s disinterest in academics and love of sports makes it easier for him to get along with his peers, but Jez is friendless and suffers from bullying. Worst of all, a racist white deputy is a constant threat.
The protection that rootwork offers is more important than ever for the just-turning-11-year-old twins and their family. A doll, Dinah, gifted to Jez by Gran, is a comfort to the girl and quickly proves to be more than just a toy. A new girl, Susie, may be the friend Jez so needs – especially since it seems all the changes are driving the twins apart.
The supernatural – both good and evil – soon becomes part of their lives. This is particularly true for Jezebel, whose magical talent quickly becomes apparent. She also learns such powers attract perilous otherworldly attentions.
Root Magic is Eden Royce’s novel-length debut and she writes with both the authority and knowledge that comes from someone who is a member of the Gullah-Geechee nation with deep family traditions of her own. She writes with appreciation, warmth, and respect of every element involved, from the food to the convincing characters and their relationships.
Royce does not shirk from portraying the true non-supernatural evils of racism, prejudice, and poverty (although the latter is tempered by both the historical era and an understanding that a lack of material goods does not equal deprivation). Nor is the intensity of the supernatural scares toned down.
As a middle-grade book, of course, an optimistic outcome is a given, but Royce does an excellent job of balancing the positive with the negatives of human and historical pain (which are still resonant today) for young readers who may not be aware of it.
The well-wrought Taylor family and exemplary cultural portrayal makes Root Magic a worthwhile read for adults too. Older readers may need to be a little patient with the entirely suitable, well-handled children’s-book lessons that what makes one different makes one special, to be strong and be oneself, to learn everything one can, etc. – not that it hurts for grownups to have such reminders.
One can only hope that the author will eventually tell us adult readers more of Jezebel, her brother, and the rest of the Taylors. The twins would be close to a fictional seventy years of age now. It would be wonderful to see what becomes of them as they live through the tumultuous history of the last six decades.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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