Though written late in the series' original publication order, and sold for the longest time as the sixth of the seven Narnia volumes, in recent years The Magician's Nephew has been relabeled as book one. It's a move that makes sense, as the story details the very origin of Lewis's magical world. Lewis's response to a child's fan letter, in which he made it clear he thought this one should be read first, inspired the current re-sequencing. However, many fans of the series recommend reading them in their publication order. Either could work for you, since each book can be enjoyed as a stand-alone adventure.
The Magician's Nephew may not be the best of the Narnia novels, but it's a brisk and funny tale certain to delight its intended young audience. It's nothing less than a big fat bedtime story. This means, of course, that in many ways there isn't much depth here to make the story a wholly fulfilling experience for grown-ups. But it's an appealing opening to a series that would go on to become, in its entirety, one of the canonical works of modern fantasy. It would be an ideal gift for a child just a fraction too young to dive right into Harry Potter or Tolkien.
The story details the first trip to Narnia by Digory Kirke — the uncle of the Pevensie siblings from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and his neighbor Polly Plummer. Exploring the attics of their London rowhouses one grey day, they stumble into the private chambers of Digory's scruffy uncle Andrew. Andrew, as it happens, is experimenting with magic, and has in his possession sets of green and gold rings he believes transport their wearers to another world. Too cowardly to go himself, he tricks Polly into crossing over, obliging Digory to follow. On the other side, the children find a forest filled with pools, each of which leads to a different world. The first of these they visit is the ruined land of Charn, where Digory unwittingly awakens the evil Queen Jadis, who's been in a form of suspended animation after having laid waste to Charn in a vicious war.
Jadis lusts after a new world to rule, and after an embarrassing trip back to London, the children transport her (as well as Uncle Andrew, plus a confused hansom cab driver and his horse) first back to the Wood Between the Worlds, then into another pool to a world caught up in the first moments of its creation. This is Narnia, and when the wary travelers meet its creator, the divine lion Aslan, Jadis flees. Digory, as the one responsible for bringing this evil to a brand new world, is given an opportunity to make up for his deed.
This fast-paced adventure will still please young children today, I think, even if some of them might find the whole affair too cute and old-fashioned. There are scenes of very broad slapstick comedy that kids will get a kick out of, involving that reliable standby, talking animals. (Shades of Lewis's love of the work of Beatrix Potter.) Lewis fills their mouths with charmingly snarky dialogue that may well have been one of the many influences on current writers like Pratchett. These bits also steer the story clear of any pretentiousness to which it could have succumbed in its role as relgious allegory.
For adult readers, the tale may be much too thematically and morally simplistic to satisfy. Aslan is basically God, so he's the good guy, and Jadis is the wicked witch. So there we have our good and evil archetypes served up in high-contrast black and white. Absent is the nuance and moral ambiguity of such later young-adult fantasists as Rowling and Susan Cooper. Also, there's a narrative shallowness in that Digory, as a hero, rarely gets a chance to make profound decisions that affect the story on his own. Once Aslan turns up, the children just do what he tells them, and thus they learn lessons not by their deeds but simply as the received wisdom of older (and divine) authority. There's one effective scene late in the story, in which Jadis devilishly tempts Digory to steal the Apple of Life to help his dying mother back home. (It's a nice twist on the symbolism of Genesis, too, in that Lewis is taking back the apple, as it were, and transforming it into a tool for good rather than evil.) But Lewis keeps the choice an easy one, so the moral lessons — in this book, mainly the danger of temptation and the emptiness of selfishness and greed — are never too complicated for children to grasp.
After half a century, The Chronicles of Narnia remain sublime entertainment for pre-teen readers, though any audience today older than adolescents will almost certainly crave something with a bit more of an edge. But if you've got little ones to tuck in at night, I defy you to find a better bedtime story.
Followed in narrative (but not publication) sequence by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.