Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Back in the last millennium, Justine Larbalestier and I were both members of Sydney Uni Fencing Club. I completely lost contact with her when she gave up fencing, but when I stumbled across her website I read it with interest.

A little while before the publication of Magic or Madness, there was an excerpt on the site. I read and enjoyed it, and was really looking forward to the book. However, a week or so later, one of the people I work got caught up in a friend’s custody battle over a child whose father suffered from a psychiatric disorder. And this made me rethink the Magic or Madness extract. Was it saying that Reason was better off with her mother, and modern society was unkind/insensitive to place her into the custody of her grandmother? Was it trivialising the danger for children in these situations? Was it maybe giving a “wrong but wromantic”/”right but repulsive” slant to the whole thing?

So it was with some trepidation that I bought and read the book. Fortunately, my concerns were allayed – reading the whole book, rather than just an excerpt, didn’t give me the same feelings. Firstly, Sarafina’s madness was much more tied in with the whole magic system than I had realised; and secondly, Reason proved to be a not-entirely-reliable narrator.

I really enjoyed the book. The Sydney sections had a terrific sense of place – probably the New York bits do as well, but since I’ve never been there, I can’t tell. I kept getting a “yes, that’s exactly right” buzz as I was reading it: you’d think this would be easy, but I’ve read some things set in Sydney that really feel as if they could be anyplace.

I really enjoyed the character of Reason. There were times when I wanted to shake her and say “wake up and see what’s really going on”, but I think these were just enough to keep the story going, without making the character absolutely infuriating. I imagine this is a very difficult balance for an author to manage!

I also liked Tom a lot, though Jay-Tee didn’t work for me quite as well. However, she was an interesting character, and I suspect I will warm to her in later books of the series. I particularly liked the fact that there were just enough questionable aspects to Esmerelda that I was never quite sure whether Reason or Tom was right about her – or if they were both wrong.

I’m looking forward to the next one, although sadly it appears there will be a year to wait. (Though this is nothing to George R R Martin – I have been hanging out for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire since 2000!)

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