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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 December 2006
Reason Cansino has always been taught to fear her grandmother, Esmeralda. Reason's mother, Sarafina, has taken them all over Australia, mostly to remote Aboriginal settlements. Reason has only been to a real school once, but Sarafina has taught her lots of things, mostly math and some science.

Reason has been happy with her life, but when Sarafina goes crazy--really crazy, as in trying to kill herself instead of her usual craziness consisting of things like making them walk in straight lines for days--all of that comes to an end. Reason is sent to live with Esmeralda in Sydney. She's expecting the dark, scary house of her mother's stories. The one where Sarafina's cat was murdered. The house where dark magic takes place--imaginary magic, of course, as Sarafina has always said that magic isn't real. It's too illogical.

What Reason finds, however, is a spacious, light house, not at all witchy. There are no animal sacrifices in the living room, no bubbling cauldrons in the kitchen. That can't undo the belief that years of Sarafina's stories have created, though. Reason is sure that something is going on underneath the surface, and she's got to run away and get out of Sydney as soon as possible. She's got to rescue Sarafina from the loony bin where she's been locked up.

Sydney's not all bad, though. Reason meets Esmeralda's neighbor, a boy about her age named Tom. She'll be sorry to leave him behind, but it looks like he's working with Esmeralda, and she's got to get away from the witch.

Reason's escape from Sydney doesn't exactly go as planned. Instead of escaping with her mother and all of her supplies, Reason finds herself on a winter street in New York City, barefoot and with nothing, after stepping through Esmeralda's back door.

She doesn't know how she ended up there, but she's grateful to Jay-Tee, the teenage girl who rescued her from the freezing, alien streets. She thinks that Jay-Tee is just a friendly passerby...But could there be more to it than that? What is going on? How did Reason step through a door from Sydney to New York? That's just not possible. What secrets are being hidden from her?

MAGIC OR MADNESS is a wonderful novel from Justine Larbalestier, who's married to one of my favorite authors of all time, Scott Westerfeld. It's a fascinating story, and the way it's told is a little unconventional: some chapters are told in a first person point of view, in Reason's voice, and others are told in a third person limited point of view, from inside either Jay-Tee's or Tom's mind. These three different points of view could be confusing, but Justine Larbalestier pulls it off wonderfully.

The story itself is quite a page-turner. I read this book when it first came out, and reread it after getting my own copy in paperback, and I loved it both times. The characters are all wonderfully realistic and interesting. Each answer Reason finds only leads to more questions, keeping suspense throughout the story. The writing is fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to the third book in the trilogy, MAGIC'S CHILD, coming in 2007!

Reviewed by: Jocelyn Pearce
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 30 September 2008
Justine Larbalestier is the wife of uber YA fantasy author Scott Westerfeld and I must confess I was worried when I started reading this that she would not match up to her husband's success in the genre.

I had nothing to fear. Justine Larbalestier writes beautifully and the world she imagines (a house in Sidney whose back door opens to New York City), its rules and its limitations, is fully formed and engaging. I fell in love with the characters and could not believe it when the book came to an end.
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on 9 October 2010
Magic or Madness opens with fifteen year old Reason Cansino bound for the home of her estranged grandmother. It's one of the most perfect opening chapters you could wish for, telling the reader everything they need to know about who this girl is and what her life has been until now. Raised by her mother Sarafina, their life has been defined by running away: escaping one place and seeking out the next, leaving everything behind them. They've been running from her grandmother, Esmerelda. The witch. Only now Sarafina is gone, and Reason is being sent to live with her. She's already planning her escape, of course. As the story unfolds, we accompany Reason to the witch's house, unsure what lies in store for her - and us - there. And then Reason opens a door. On the other side, New York. And winter. And magic.

Set in both Sydney, Australia and New York City, Magic or Madness is a book with two distinct accents. Chapters set in Sydney use Aussie slang and spellings; the New York based ones, on the other hand, are all-American. Not only does this add a little extra authenticity to the narrative voice - which itself switches between Reason's candid first person and a third-person perspective when she's not around - but Larbalestier has also thought to include a pretty cute glossary of cultural terms that readers might not be familiar with. Neither variation is marginalised, and they flow into each other seamlessly. Together with the novel's multi-racial, stereotype-defying cast of main players, Magic or Madness gives us the sense that this story is an inclusive one: there's somebody for every reader to instantly relate to.

Probably the most remarkable thing about Magic or Madness is Justine Larbalestier's portrayal of magic itself. Central to the tale's impact, it's not something I would wish to spoil for you, but I will say that in this series Justine Larbalestier has made the very notion of magic her own. It has logic; it keeps to its own rules and it makes sense. And from our first wondrous encounter with it to the dark revelations of the story's final chapters, it's utterly fascinating. Through Reason and her two new friends, American Jay-Tee and Australian Tom, we witness the very different ways that this brand of magic can be channelled. For Reason, magic is about numbers and patterns, and there's a undeniable beauty in the way she relates to them. For dancer Jay-Tee, it's more rooted in physicality, and for Tom - refreshingly enough - it's all about fashion design. For all them, it holds the same joy and the same terrible danger. The stakes are high.

Magic or Madness is a hugely imaginative novel. It's the kind of book I want to take apart, piece by piece, to find out what it's made of. It's heartbreaking and beautiful and impossibly clever. Like the darker fairytales of childhood, it's bleak and strangely comforting all at the same time. While the two subsequent books in the trilogy never quite captured my heart in the way Magic or Madness has, they're both worth a look - and I should probably warn you that if you read this one you will want to know what happens next. It's a keeper.
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I cam to this book on the recommendation of some friends and am glad that I did. Larbalestier has put a lot of thought into how magic works in 'her' world, giving it a terrible twist - use it and you die young, don't use it and you go insane.

Reason's mother, Serafina, opted to pretend that magic didn't exist and now she's locked up in an asylum, leaving Reason to be looked after by her grandmother, Esmeralda, a woman who Reason's been told kills animals and babies and drinks their blood. Reason, with her strong gift for maths and science, does not doubt the things that Serafina has told her and plots to escape her grandmother's house. But when she opens the back door, she finds herself suddenly transported from summery Sydney to wintery New York and realises that magic is real afterall.

Like I said, the worldbuilding is credible and Larbalestier takes her time to introduce the reader to the concept, intertwining Reason's first person narrative with the third person narratives of Tom and J-T (other young magic users) to good effect. There's a credible 'baddie' in the form of Jason Blake, a villainous magician who steals other people's magic to prolong his own life and Esmeralda is suitably ambiguous.

The reason I haven't given this book 5 stars is because whilst the writing is excellent, when you come to the end you realise that there isn't actually a whole lot of plot - mostly it is just world building. Therefore, by the time you get to the end, when Reason does accept that she's magic and realises what the consequences are, you don't necessarily feel that a great deal has happened. In addition, I thought that the ending was weak - far too open-ended, I suppose to keep Esmeralda's ambiguity going, although the effect is to make you feel that you're missing a chapter. I also think that there were a couple of instances where Larbalestier was clumsy in introducing her backstory, notably when we discover that Reason has used magic once before (albeit unknowingly) to deadly effect - it was a revelation that came out of nowhere and because there was no prior reference, I felt it was rather out of kilter with the rest of the book.

Still, it is well-written, dialogue is nicely handled and there's a fun culture clash between Australian English and US English. Kudos to the publisher for including a glossary of Australian slang, which was v. useful.
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