The Red Magician is a tragic, yet ultimately uplifting fantasy set before, during, and after the Holocaust. Kicsi, a young Jewish girl who lives in a small village in Hungary, longs for adventure, exotic travels, and magic. She's entranced when a real magician, Vörös, visits her village and stays with her family. But the town's rabbi, a powerful mage himself, mistrusts the stranger. Their conflict draws Kicsi deeper into the world of magic, and prevents her village from recognizing the terrible danger that lurks in the outside world.
It took me a while to get into this book. The first half at first seems meandering, more a collection of scenes from the normal life of Kicsi's village than a driving plot. Vörös's visit causes some excitement, but when he doesn't return for over a year, even Kicsi starts losing interest in magic. (Spoilers) Yet the second half of the book is a gripping, frightening journey into darkness and despair. Once I got to that part, I realized that the first half of the novel is a homage to all the quiet, ordinary people who lost their lives. It makes Kicsi's experience in the death camps all the more heart-rending, since you understand the shocking depth of what she's lost.
By the end of the book, I had come to love and understand the characters far more. Vörös, who in the beginning was frustrating and mysterious, becomes deeply sympathetic, and Kisci grows from an awkward young girl obsessed with magic, to a wise young woman who overcomes the palpable despair and guilt that scarred her life. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy or historical fiction.