Magic or Madness: Strengths outweigh flaws

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Justine Larbalestier Magic or MadnessMagic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Magic or Madness does a nice job of plunking us down in mid-story, giving us a sense of early momentum that seldom pauses the rest of the way. Reason Cansino has been kept on the move in the Australian bush for most of her 15 years, in order, her mother says, to keep her safe from Esmeralda, Reason’s dangerous grandmother. Serafina, Reason’s mother, has filled Reason’s mind with stories of Serafina being held captive as a young child in Esmeralda’s cellar, of Esmeralda’s animal sacrifices and dark rites all in the name magic, which she impresses upon Reason, doesn’t exist. But now, having seemingly gone from simply strange to truly crazy, Serafina is Institutionalized in a Sydney mental hospital and can no longer protect Reason, who as the book opens is being taken to Esmeralda’s house by the “witch” herself.

This sense of coming into the story mid-stream does a good job of adding a sense of history to the ensuing story, as well as a feeling of suspenseful urgency. Her mother’s tales weren’t completely true, Reason finds out early enough (the house for instance is bright and airy rather than gothically dark), but neither are they completely false (something is buried in the corner of the cellar).

In an attempt to run away, Reason walks through a door and somehow ends up in New York City. Magic, therefore, does exist, and its existence, its effects on her family and herself, its temptations and dangers, all play a major role from then on. Along the way to trying to learn some answers, Reason meets several youths of her same age who may or may not practice magic and may or may not be her allies. The adults she comes into contact with do practice magic, but once again, their motivations and trustworthiness are unclear.

The strengths of Magic or Madness are many. It is tautly constructed with a quick, urgent pace. Shifts in narration among the youthful characters and a third-person narrator add suspense and lend some variety to the voices telling the story. The young people are quickly but sharply characterized and mostly have a sense of authenticity in their actions and language. The magic is low-level through most of the story, acting mostly as an underlying sense of menace and mystery until the very end, where it makes a more pronounced entrance. The main storyline is pretty straightforward, but the unclear agendas of the adults, and their use of the children to achieve those agendas, makes for a nice complexity. Not only is one unsure as to who exactly is “good” and “evil”, by the end those terms have been shown to be gross over-simplifications. Life is seldom so simple and neither is what is going on this book (the first of a projected trilogy).

Most of the flaws are relatively minor. The adult characters are so far more shallowly depicted, but Esmeralda deepens toward the end and one assumes/hopes that will continue in book two. Some of the plot events are a bit contrived or make use of hard-to-believe coincidence. But these are easily overlooked.

The largest and most annoying flaw, and the one that is consistently noticeable throughout (thus dropping Magic or Madness from a four to a three) is the inconsistency with regard to just how sophisticated Reason is. At times she speaks like a never-been-out-of-the-bush-knows-almost-nothing fifteen-year-old; at other times she displays a jarringly normal response to events. For instance, she might compare something to an Escher painting on one page and then two pages later not recognize snow for what it is for several long minutes. There are many examples of this and they unfortunately did mar the reading experience pretty regularly for me, though some might find it less annoying, and maybe especially the younger audience that Magic or Madness is aimed at.

Overall, the series (and one will have to continue the series for the story to hold together) is off to a good start and despite its flaws, I recommend it fairly strongly.

Magic or Madness  — (2005-2007) Young adult. Magic or Madness won the 2007 Andre Norton Award for best Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy. Publisher: For fifteen years, Reason Cansino has lived on the run.Together with her mother, Sarafina, she has moved from one place to another in the Australian countryside, desperate not to be found by Reason’s grandmother Esmeralda, a dangerous woman who believes in magic. But the moment Reason walks through Esmeralda’s back door and finds herself on a New York City street, she’s confronted by an unavoidable truth — magic is real.

Justine Larbalestier Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, Magic's ChildJustine Larbalestier Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, Magic's ChildJustine Larbalestier Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, Magic's Child

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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