Sunday, June 03, 2007

Review: Magic or Madness trilogy

This review contains spoilers.

Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy reached its conclusion this spring with the March publication of Magic's Child. I've long been a fan of Justine's blog, so when the opportunity to interview her as part of Colleen Mondor's June Blog Tour Blast came up, I took it and picked up the trilogy in preparation. And, boy, am I glad I did--this is one smart trilogy for the teen (and adult) reader.

The trilogy opens with Magic or Madness, when 15-year-old Reason ends ups in Sydney with the very grandmother--Esmeralda--she'd been hiding from her entire life. Esmeralda, Reason's mother Sarafina claims, is a witch, who sacrifices small animals, eats babies, and conquers men in an attempt to maintain her powers. Sarafina describes a house of horrors, with no electricity, but with bones, teeth and other magical objects littering the place. Sarafina has also taught her daughter to be on her guard--to not trust Esmeralda and to run if she's ever caught by her grandmother.

Imagine Reason's surprise when she ends up at her grandmother's house (after Sarafina suffers a mental breakdown) and it's a virtual palace--light, clean, airy, and huge. Esmeralda herself seems perfectly normal, even kind. Reason has her own bedroom and bathroom and she's found no evidence of witchcraft. Esmeralda allows Reason to visit her mother in the mental institution, and Reason even makes a first friend--a sweet boy named Tom who lives next door, is a whiz at fashion, and who teaches Reason to explore their neighborhood without touching the ground. Life, Reason finds, is not what she expected at Esmeralda's.

Then, one day, Reason decides to follow her grandmother out the back door and she finds herself in a mysterious cold gray world complete with snow. (This desolate place turns out to be New York City.) A girl happens upon Reason shivering in her Sydney clothes and takes her home. Turns out this girl, Jay-Tee, was waiting for her. And so is Jay-Tee's benefactor, one Jason Blake--Reason's grandfather. In working against Jason Blake, Reason and Jay-Tee become friends and Reason learns the whole truth--that magic does exist, that she herself is magic as are Jay-Tee, Tom, Esmeralda, and Jason Blake, and that magic has huge costs. Namely, each time you use magic you shorten your life. But, paradoxically, if you are magic and don't it at all, you will go mad, as Reason's mother has. Finally, magic can be stolen by other magical folk--as Jason has taken, or drunk, from Jay-Tee.

When Reason learns the truth about herself and her family, she fights back. With the help of Esmeralda and Tom, who track her through the streets of New York, Reason and Jay-Tee make it back to Sydney in once piece, but with many questions.

Magic or Madness is a thought-provoking fantasy novel on many levels. First, Larbalestier's characterizations are particularly strong. Reason arrives from the Australian outback and knows very little about modern life and absolutely nothing about magic. Esmeralda remains an ambiguous character from start to finish. Jason Blake is evil, but his motivations are clear and understandable--he uses others so he can live. Second, Larbalestier's focus on the costs of magic makes this trilogy interesting from a philosophical point of view.

Magic Lessons, the second in the Magic or Madness trilogy, finds Reason at home in Sydney with Esmeralda, Jay-Tee, and Tom. The teens have a million questions for Esmeralda and she agrees to instruct them all in the basics of magic. At the same time, Reason's powers of magic are growing as she begins to recognize them: always a math genius, Reason finds she's able to read the internal structure of the other magical people in her life and she finds Jay-Tee and Esmeralda have very little time left. Also, the door between Sydney and New York begins to act up--banging, and rippling, and wreaking havoc in the kitchen. Eventually a sticky yellowish substance streams under the door and enters Esmeralda, Jay-Tee, and Reason. Jay-Tee almost dies, but Esmeralda and Reason gain incredible strength and more magical power. Reason heads through the door to New York to find out why.

There she finds a creature--an old man--who at first terrifies her with his awful smell and appearance. But, she realizes he's a Cansino, one of her own family, and she begins to track him in order to discover what he wants and why he's still living past the lifespan of the average magician (20-40). In the meantime, she lives with Jay-Tee's brother, Danny, and finds herself falling in love with him.

Magic Lessons explores Reason's growing strength as a magician (manifested often synesthetically) and the world of magic as a whole. Reason begins to see magic as a disease, one that can be cured--an idea supported by Jay-Tee, who tells her that Jason Blake dreamed that Reason would be the one to solve magic's downsides.

At the end of Magic Lessons, old man Cansino returns to his final resting place in Sydney, but not before imbuing Reason with incredible powers. Jay-Tee, Tom, and Esmeralda also learn that that Reason is pregnant and that Esmeralda's magic boost from old man Cansino is gone.

In the final volume of Larbalestier's trilogy, Reason's powers have grown so much that, to magical people, she hardly appears human. She can reshape DNA--her own and others'--and can move herself through space. Jason Blake sets up a final showdown in an attempt to steal Reason's powers and live forever. And, he uses Sarafina in a bid to outmaneuver Reason.

Reason, Esmeralda, Tom and Jay-Tee track Sarafina in an attempt to save her. Jay-Tee nearly dies in the chase, but Reason saves her by rearranging and fixing her DNA. Jay-Tee lives, but her magic is gone. Jay-Tee, both saddened and exhilarated by her new status as a non-magical person, finds a nearly analogous magic, however, in a new romance with Tom.

In the end, Reason does save herself and others. But not by making magic safe to use over the course of a lifetime. She disables the magic in her mother, her grandmother, and in herself. She tries to save Tom as well, but he refuses--afraid he will no longer be able to make beautiful clothing without his magic. The book closes with a magical moment, but one I won't spoil for readers.

Ethical issues play an important role in the Magic trilogy. The fact that people with magic must steal it from others to stay alive means choices are difficult. Esmeralda stole magic from Tom without telling him, while Tom gave some freely to Jay-Tee when she nearly died. Esmeralda, despite her lapse, tries her best not to take from others, but Reason sees her eyes light up with greed when she sees Reason's unlimited power in Magic's Child. Sarafina chose madness over magic altogether and willingly gives up her power when Reason offers. And Reason herself must decide between a normal life and one consisting of beautiful patterns, numbers, and, most importantly, no pain.

Structurally, the Magic books are fascinating as well, with chapters told in first person by Reason, Jay-Tee, and Tom. Over the course of the trilogy we learn to know each of these characters well and understand the choices they face. Overall, the Magic trilogy gives the reader much to consider, while providing hours of entertainment.

Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy includes some (not overly graphic) sexuality in volumes two and three and is best suited for readers ages twelve and up.
Michele: If you haven't read these, you really should! I think you'll like them.