Picking up an Orson Scott Card novel is like meeting up with an old friend. No matter how much things may have changed, there's a familiarity that immediately sets me at ease. His characters have a distinctive Card flavor (smart, clever, sarcastic, and vulnerable), which is reassuring, but can also be somewhat limiting. I've wondered at times if he is capable of breaking out of his own Card-ness and creating characters that weren't all variations of his standard template (Ender Wiggin in my opinion, but maybe that's just because that was my first introduction to his work).
And then came Magic Street, and my good opinion of Orson Scott Card's talents got new life. Not only was the story imaginative and unpredictable, but the characters were a complete -- and refreshing -- departure from typical Card fare. Magic Street is a fantasy set in contemporary Los Angeles that merges the unlikely worlds of an upper middle class black neighborhood with a bizarre Fairyland (a conglomeration of fairy tales and fairy superstitions around the world, but most heavily represented in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream). Puck appears as a homeless old Bag Man, and Queen Mab is a motorcycle riding babe with attitude who goes by Yo Yo. The juxtaposition of gritty reality and fanciful fairies could easily have failed in the hands of a less skilled author, but Card makes it believable and wondrous at the same time.
The central figure is Mack Street, a boy who was found abandoned as a baby and raised primarily by an older single woman, and also partly by all the families in the neighborhood who love him for his goodness and lack of guile. He has unusual abilities, including being able to see people's deepest desires. When their dreams start coming true in cruel, twisted ways, he becomes concerned with figuring out who he is and how to stop the evil things happening to the people he loves. Eventually he learns that his life is more affected by Oberon and Queen Mab than he could have ever imagined and in order to save the world he knows, he must throw himself fully into their epic conflict.
In true Orson Scott Card style, there is an abundance of page-turning action. But what impressed me the most was how original and convincing his characters were. I am not an upper middle class African American who battles race issues as part of my identity, so maybe I'm not the best judge. But I thought he did a fantastic job of getting into the lives and heads of people whose background is so unlike his own, and portraying them in sympathetic and genuine ways. It's an ambitious attempt, and one that Card pulls off very well. In the process he creates some memorable characters whom the reader can't help but fall in love with and see their adventure through to its beautiful, bitter-sweet conclusion.