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Australian Fantasy: Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness

What makes Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness so distinctive and memorable is the protagonist, Reason Cansino. Reason is Australian, and half-Aborigine, and she has grown up in extremely peculiar circumstances which, naturally, seem completely normal to her. She has grown up on the run, with her mother, Sarafina, but cut off from the rest of her family—especially from her grandmother, Esmerelda. Sarafina has told Reason that Esmerelda believes she’s a witch, but of course there’s no such thing as magic. All the same, she’s taught her some tricks for how to deal with it, like counting Fibonacci numbers in your head. Now Sarafina has been hospitalised and Esmeralda has control of fifteen year old Reason, and the way magic works and whether it can be benign is about to become a huge problem. Reason knows how to live in the desert and how to keep moving on, but she knows almost nothing about the way normal people live….

The book is YA, and it has YA pacing and expectations. It’s the first volume of a trilogy, and it has volume completion but if you like it you will probably want to read the other two. (Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child.) The three of them are about the length of one fat fantasy novel, I reread them all in one day.

There are three points of view, we see Tom and Jay-Tee in close third person—but it’s the tight focus on first person Reason and her way of seeing the world that made this book unputdownable for me.

Expect the best but prepare for the worst. I’m good at the first part, crap at the second.

Reason feels so real, so matter-of-fact, even when what she’s relating is absolutely incredible. She’s so confidential, and her predicament, her need to run away from the grandmother she has been told is evil, is so compelling, that it absolutely grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go.

Sarafina taught me how read, how to run, how to hide, the music of numbers and of the stars above. and the patterns, the spirals in the flowers and the termite mounds, the fruits and the scrubs, the grasses and trees. …

How could I have possibly ended up in a witch’s house?

I was less interested in the other characters—the books are always focused on Reason, but we see her from their points of view. It was mildly interesting to see her from outside, but I was always slightly impatient to be back in her head, especially the second time through.

This is a contemporary fantasy with the magic well integrated into the real world—we see Sydney and New York. The magic system is well worked out and clever—if you have magic you have to use it or you’ll go insane. But if you use it too much you’ll die. Of course, you can steal it from other people, and that way you can stay both sane and alive, but it’s not exactly ethical. It’s an awful predicament to be in, and Larbalestier deals well with the implications across all three volumes.

The plot is fast moving and interesting, but it’s really Reason’s voice and the world that brought me back.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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