Sonderbooks Book Review of Magic or Madness

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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations

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****Magic or Madness

by Justine Larbalestier

Reviewed December 17, 2006.
Razorbill (Penguin), New York, 2005.  271 pages.

One of the difficulties beginning writers have is what my friend calls “exposition hell”—trying to tell the reader everything about the world you are creating, and consequently writing a boring beginning.  Justine Larbalestier doesn’t have that problem at all with her first novel.  She leaps into the story, driving us wild with questions.  Why does Reason Cansino want to run away from her grandmother’s house?  Why have she and her mother been on the run from her grandmother for all of Reason’s life?  How did her grandmother get hold of her now?  And why does Reason call her a wicked witch?

When Reason arrives at her grandmother Esmerelda’s house, things aren’t quite the way her mother described them.  But something strange is happening with the locked back door.  The author continues to feed us little bits of information about Reason’s mother, just enough to increase our curiosity.  I love the passage, when Reason meets Tom, a boy who lives next door to Esmerelda.  This chapter is told from Tom’s perspective:

“‘My mother’s mad.’
“‘Yeah?  Mine too.’

“‘No,’ said Reason.  ‘I mean really mad.’

“‘Yeah,’ said Tom.  ‘Mine too.  She kept trying to kill herself.  Then one time when I was little, she tried to kill me and Cathy too.  So she’s in Kalder Park now.’

“‘Wow.  My mother’s in Kalder Park!  Sarafina tried to kill herself too.’  The girl seemed amazed by the coincidence, which struck Tom as weird.  If she was Mere’s granddaughter, she should know it wasn’t a coincidence.”

Reason’s mother has always insisted that there is no such thing as magic, even though Esmerelda tries to use it.  That’s why she gave Reason her name.  (And it’s prettier than Logic or Rationality or Intellect.)  But Reason finds out that maybe her mother is wrong when she finds herself in a strange city in the middle of winter, away from her hot Australian summer.

This fantasy isn’t quite like any other I’ve ever read.  The magic here is disguised by ordinary life, and it has a terrible price.  Essentially, those who use it must make the choice:  Magic or madness?

Reviews of other books by Justine Larbalestier:

How to Ditch Your Fairy
Zombies vs. Unicorns

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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