The Magician's Elephant.

A lonely boy, his missing sister, a bitter old soldier, an inept magician, a fortuneteller, a kindly police officer, a proud countess, an elephant and others are linked in a mesmerizing new novel by Kate DiCamillo.

In The Magician's Elephant, DiCamillo spins a story that has both a page-turning plot and a fable's message: Never be afraid to hope.

DiCamillo -- who has proved her range in tales such as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the Mercy Watson comedies and the Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux -- presents a fantasy that's grounded in the hard facts of life but elevated by magic.

In an Eastern European city during the late 1800s, 10-year-old Peter works for old soldier Vilna Lutz, who gives the boy a coin to buy fish and hard bread (better-suited, he says, to one used to war and discomfort). But Peter spends the money to ask a fortuneteller one question: Is his little sister alive? Peter, with support from a young policeman, sets out to find his beloved Adele.

Meanwhile, a magician meaning to conjure up a bunch of lilies invokes an elephant who lands in the lap of a wealthy noblewoman, crushing her legs. The magician is jailed and the elephant caged.

In the sparest of language, DiCamillo invents distinctive, surprising characters. Each character is linked to the others, and all -- especially the elephant -- figure prominently in Peter's quest. The boy -- who sometimes thinks it's "a terrible and complicated thing to hope and that it might be easier, instead, to despair" -- nevertheless persuades several adults to assist in his plan to return the sad elephant to its rightful home. The scene in which Peter, the magician, the policeman, the elephant and the noblewoman come together is exciting, touching and inspirational.

Of all the characters invented for The Magician's Elephant, none is a fairy, but the story still reads like a charming, sometimes-melancholy and ultimately hopeful fairy tale.