OK, so I've finished the last of the Young Wizards books (so far--another comes out this fall) and I stand by my earlier comparisons. I think they're just as good as Cooper or L'Engle's books, and engaged in much the same issues. There's an intriguing "problem" of time with them. The first book, published in 1982, takes place in a pre-PC world--no internet, no cellphones, not even the glimmerings. And that's all fine; the magic works, and it's no more jarring than reading, say, Cooper or L'Engle. But Duane has continued writing about these kids, and their world has increasingly become our world; the computer that arrives in the third book is an Apple IIIc+ (which didn't, as far as I can tell, ever exist, but like other personal computers of that vintage it's got a floppy drive, etc. Later it appears to evolve into something like a PowerBook, though with powers far beyond any I've ever owned.), the DVD and satellite TV enter the picture, everyone has a cellphone, and by the most recent book it's also clear that the towers have fallen in New York. This is all fine--except that the kids haven't finished middle school yet, which they'd just started in the first book. So the world has aged a good twenty years, but they haven't.
Still, it's easy to get over that. The characters in the Charlie Brown comics never aged, either, and the kids in the L'Engle books aged inconsistently, especially when you tried to match up the Austins with the Murrys (as L'Engle herself eventually did). The early books may seem a bit anachronistic to kids reading them today, but maybe not; I'm not sure these time "problems" would have bothered me as a child reader.
In many ways the books strike me as being almost as much s/f as fantasy. There is magic, but magic appears in some ways to be--as it often is for L'Engle as well--simply a higher understanding of the laws of physics. I like the way Duane brings in Celtic mythology in A Wizard Abroad, and I also like the way she deepens the relationships between and among her characters as the series progresses. I especially appreciate that she works hard to balance a sense of the costs and the pains of wizardry (and, for that matter, of life) with a generally optimistic sense that good can prevail. For example, the climax of the latest book, Wizards at War, recalls the encounter with IT at the end of A Wrinkle in Time, but the resolution is nowhere near as easy or as quick--it is not always easy to know what the right thing to do is, and even when the kids do know, it's not always easy to do it. As the books progress, more characters keep being added--this seems to me in keeping with the increasing scale of crises they have to face, and the overall theme of interconnectedness that animates the books. There is a deeply religious sensibility here, I think, though not perhaps a conventionally Christian one.
I've just done a quick read-through of these novels--all eight in one week, give or take--and I'll need to consider them further. But for now, I can see recommending them to kids who've enjoyed the Harry Potter series, or who have read and enjoyed L'Engle, Cooper, or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Nick, at the moment, is rather resisting most of my recommendations (this happens periodically and I just wait it out; he usually comes around), so I'll take these back to the library for now and see if he gets interested some other time. He's all about dragons at the moment, though--so if anyone's familiar with the Chris D'Lacey books, let me know what you think.