This review is from: Magic or Madness (Magic or Madness Trilogy (Paperback)) (Paperback)
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.