Friday, 24 August 2012

Magic or Madness - Book Review

Magic or Madness is a YA novel by Justine Larbalestier, telling the story of fifteen-year-old Reason Cansino. Reason has been brought up by her mother, Sarafina, moving constantly across Australia in order to elude Reason’s grandmother Esmeralda, who has claimed custody of her. Sarafina has told Reason that Esmeralda performs all kinds of terrible rituals in the name of magic. When Sarafina is taken to hospital, Reason is sent to live with Esmeralda. Reason begins to explore the house, hoping to learn the truth about Esmeralda. However, when she steps through the mysterious back door and into New York, she is forced to wonder if magic might be real after all.

This is a clever book, with more layers to it than I first expected. After the first few chapters I was sure that Sarafina was completely nuts, and that Reason would have to slowly come to terms with the fact that Esmeralda is not the monster Sarafina made her out to be. Sure enough, Sarafina is taken to a hospital for the mentally ill, and Reason finds that Esmeralda’s house is not as Sarafina described it. Esmeralda herself seems completely normal. Then, slowly, a more sinister picture begins to emerge. There really are weird ritual objects hidden around the house. There really is the corpse of Sarafina’s pet cat in the cellar, with its neck slashed. The boy who lives next door seems to believe magic is real and that Reason can use it too. And then Reason steps through the back door into another country and suddenly everything changes.

The first half of the book seems to be a search for the truth between magic and madness. Who is really the crazy one? Does anyone believe in magic? The second half of the book flips this; if magic is real, then is Esmeralda sane after all? Is she even more dangerous than before? Or is Reason the mad one? Who can Reason trust? The ending of the novel, and the revelation about the cost of magic, twists the title around again, offering another interpretation of the relationship between magic and madness. Reason seems to be involved in a desperate fight throughout the entire book, caught between magic and madness and faced with some awful choices. There was a lot of clever wordplay in the story to complement this theme, such as Reason’s name itself, and the Fibonacci numbers that Reason likes to recite to calm herself. She refers to these as Fibs, suggesting that science, logic, and everything Reason thought she knew about the world, is really all just lies. I thought these layers, the wordplay, and the twists on the title all added a lot of depth and enjoyment to the story.

Reason is an extremely naive girl, and a bit of an unreliable narrator at points due to her extreme cluelessness. The author keeps this from getting frustrating by switching viewpoints now and then, providing two other very different teenage points of view to balance out Reason’s innocence, and to see the story from a new perspective. Reason’s chapters are in first person, with the others in third person. This is something that might be a little jarring if not written well enough, but in this case I think it is pulled off very successfully.

Jay-Tee was an interesting and believable character; she has a tough exterior and is more streetwise than Reason, but she’s also frightened and a little out of her depth, as I think a fifteen-year-old in her situation really would be. I thought both girls came across as capable, likeable characters. I also really loved Tom and the fact that he wants to be a fashion designer. This is unusual for the girl’s potential love interest in YA (well, probably in any book), and it was both refreshing and a great character trait.

I really enjoyed this book. It has an intriguing mystery that will keep the pages turning, and a sinister sense of menace that constantly hangs over Reason. Even the end of the book, which was pitch-perfect, left me unsure and slightly uneasy. I’ll definitely be reading more in the series, and checking out other books by this author too!

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