On my trip last week, I read Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness, the first book in a new trilogy by this Australian author. The book starts with Reason Cansino, a 15-year-old girl on her way to live with her hated and feared grandmother, Esmerelda. Reason and her mother, Sarafina, have spent years on the run, hiding in the Australian outback, moving from small town to small town, so that Esmerelda won't get her hands on Reason. However, Sarafina has had a mental breakdown. While she is in the hospital, Reason is forced to live with Esmerelda.
This is a difficult adjustment for Reason because Sarafina has spent the past 15 years telling her terrible things about Esmerelda, who is supposedly a witch who eats insects, and performs hideous animal sacrifices. Reason finds herself conflicted because Esmerelda appears normal, and turns out to have a beautiful home, and to act as a mentor and teacher for Tom, the teenager next door. Meanwhile Sarafina, in the mental hospital, is clearly NOT normal. Reason doesn't know what to believe.
Reason's mother has assured her that there is no such thing as magic. Sarafina has raised Reason to believe in the strength of numbers and logic and reason. And yet, Reason starts to notice strange things about herself, her grandmother, and about her family history.
Eventually, Reason finds conclusive proof of the existence of magic, as she steps through a doorway and finds herself in New York City. There she finds a friend, Jay-Tee, who wants to help Reason. Or does she? Nothing is as it seems, and Reason, Jay-Tee, and Tom must each struggle to figure out who to trust, and what to do.
The viewpoint in this book shifts between Reason, Tom, and Jay-Tee, in alternating chapters. Their voices are easy to tell apart because Reason and Tom use various Australian colloquialisms, while Jay-Tee speaks like a teen from the U.S. I think that the Australian vs. English terminology issue does add interest to the book (the kids repeatedly argue over which is the right word for something), but I found it a bit distracting, too. I kept having to look at the glossary in the back of the book to see what something was. I think that some kids will like this ability to learn Australian lingo, while others will find it an annoying distraction from the plot.
I enjoyed Reason's viewpoint the most of the three. Reason's magical ability is centered around numbers and patterns, and she centers herself by counting up Fibonacci numbers in her head (a kindred spirit for Gregory K. and his poetic Fibs). She is so gifted with numbers that she has merely to scan a crowded room to know how many people are there. I like the idea of a magic that comprehends and uses numbers and rational patterns. The magic in this book is also subject to real laws of supply and demand and energy usage, which I find refreshing.
Overall, I thought that it was an entertaining read, and an unusual look at magic. The characterization is strong. Although I am generally getting burned out on trilogies, I do look forward to reading the other two books in this series. I want to know what happens next to Reason, Tom, and Jay-Tee.
From Scott Westerfeld's blog, I learned that Magic or Madness was recently nominated for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Ethel Turner Prize. You can read Justine Larbalestier's response to the nomination here.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.