Magic or Madness
Author: Justine Larbalestier
I fell in love with this novel right from the off, which is always a good sign as long as nothing goes south later, and it did not in this case. This is the second of Larbalestier's novels that I've read. The first was How to Ditch Your Fairy, and I rated that one a worthy read also. Is this the start of a relationship?! I have to say that this one was a bit annoying at first because the author/publisher chose to start each chapter with four or five words in a different and largely unintelligible font. There's no reason to annoy your readers like that, especially when you have so many other ways available to annoy and irritate them, but that's Big Publishing™ for you: a law unto itself.
The other thing is that there's this text divider symbol - like a sun with a smiley face in its center - employed in the text which is fine, except that it seems to appear randomly. Normally you'd use something like this to separate text in the same chapter which takes place at a somewhat later time, but in this case, these things seem to appear inexplicably at some indecipherable whim of the author's. Larbalestier seems intent in this novel upon randomly split text with these symbols, and with new chapters without much regard for the flow of what she's writing. I didn't experience this in How to Ditch Your Fairy. So this is slightly odd and somewhat frustrating, but it's not a deal buster for me.
This novel, which is the first in a trilogy (Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, Magic’s Child), is set in Australia, so some of the lingo might be obscure. If you're a Brit, especially one like me with an interest in the Land of Oz, you can understand the bulk of it, but there's a glossary at the end of the novel for anything which proves too odd to guess at. Why the glossary is there rather than at the start is a bit of a mystery, but on to the story. Reason ("Ree") is a young Caucasian/aboriginal girl who has spent nearly all her life on the run with her mother Sarafina.
This precipitates the start of this story where Ree is forced to live with her actual legal guardian (her grandmother) because Sarafina is confined to a psychiatric facility. For her entire life, Ree's had it inculcated in her that her grandmother is an evil witch (not figuratively, but quite literally) who sacrifices animals. Ree is fearful of even talking to or looking at her grandmother Esmeralda (Mere) much less accepting anything from her in the way of food or drink. I didn't buy into this characterization at all. It seemed pretty obvious from the outset that Mere is not the "bad guy" here, and that Sarafina has been less than completely honest with her daughter. Plus: nut-job! (And there's a good reason for that, as Larbalestier reveals towards the end).
As Ree is planning escape routes from the house, much in the same way her mother did at an early age many years before, she encounters her next door neighbor, Tom, who has dreams of becoming a dress designer. Kudos to Larbalestier for not only breaking molds here, but for also not making Tom gay. The two bond quickly, because much in the same way that Ree can read people and situations, and has amazing counting skills, Tom is also gifted in evaluating his surroundings and picturing where people are in them. Whereas Ree sees things in numbers, particularly the Fibonacci numbers (a sequence you may recall from its use in The Da Vinci Code) or even your math class, Tom sees them in geometric shapes, pretty much like the designers of video games do. He pretty much tracks Ree climbing his favorite tree without even opening his eyes. He's really surprised to discover that Ree is much like himself. Yes, it would seem that Tom and Ree are going to be an item, but Larbalestier is smarter than that. At least I think she is!
Larbalestier dug herself into somewhat of a slippery hole by writing this in standard trope YA girl novel format. What’s up with that? Is it illegal to write a novel about a young girl unless it's told from first person PoV? I know it pretty much is in the US, but in Australia, too, they will clap you in irons and put you in the public stocks if you try to tell your story from third person?! No wonder they exported so many convicts to Australia from England. I’ll bet every one of them was a first person perspective novelist! Seriously, because she did this, Larbalestier has to awkwardly step out from that mode of narration into third person to describe Tom's perspective.
This problem is encountered repeatedly throughout this novel, and it's both really annoying and somewhat confusing. It's testimony to how much I liked the novel and especially Ree's strong character that I was willing to put up with this really ham-fisted way of telling this story. It screeched (yes, screeched) at me that I was reading a novel. Buh-bye suspension of disbelief; I think I can see it waving to me from that last bus out of town. Why can authors not divorce themselves from 1PoV for goodness sakes? Every novel does not have to be written that way, not even if it’s a YA novel about a girl, and not even if it’s dystopian! No, honestly! Get a grip authors for goodness sakes! Having got that out of my system, Larbalestier writes pretty well in general, if you can ignore the clunky changes in voice, and there's a lot of much-appreciated humor.
Tom's observation that "Reason did not climb like a girl" is a rather insulting and condescending claim - especially coming via a female writer. I've never know girls to be any different from boys in that regard, especially when they're Ree's age and younger. OTOH, it was Tom observing this, so perhaps we can excuse Larbalestier this time. Again, this is a problem with changing the narration voice repeatedly. That aside, Ree continues to defy not only expectations, but also her grandmother by hardly saying a word to her and by refusing to eat anything in the house. She also builds on her relationship with Tom. They visit a cemetery nearby and she discovers a disturbing trend in her family - the graves are mostly for women, and nearly all of them died young. Those who didn’t die young died in their early forties. Whatever she has, magical or not, it’s apparently some sort of curse! This is important for the ending of the novel.
Ree visits her mom in the hospital, and acting on her rather drugged-addled description finds what appears to be some confirmation, under the floor in the basement, that maybe her mom wasn't telling stretchers about grandma's witching activities and her evil mien. Pursuing her plan to escape, Ree finds a strange-looking key which apparently unlocks the back door, thereby opening up alternate escape routes. Not that she's exactly a prisoner! The problem with this key is that when she finally opens the door, she's not in Kansas, er Sydney, any more. Nope. Inside, looking out the window, it’s a hot Australian day, but using the key to pass through the doorway turns that into a freezing night in New York City! Ree has never seen snow and is at first oblivious to the chilling effect, finding everything odd and fascinating, particularly the snowflakes. It's nothing like the now familiar surroundings of Sydney.
The problem is that very soon, Ree realizes that she's wandered so far from the back door that she can no longer identify her grandmother's house amongst the cookie-cutter residences here. One would think her footprints in the snow would lead her right back there, especially if she's as smart as I’d been led to hope she is, but just as she realizes she's lost, we learn that there's someone in this new world watching her. Someone who's been waiting for Ree, expecting her to show up any time now….
The new character is Julietta, who goes by Jay-Tee, and who "works for" another person with the same abilities as Esmeralda. Even though Jay-Tee isn;t honest with Ree, the two bond, and when Jay-Tee's brother Danny shows up with some interesting news, it looks like Ree has found someone else to bond with, and maybe Tom has, in Jay-Tee. Just when you think this novel is over, with Ree safely home, she discovers something in her bedroom that shakes the delicate foundation she mistakenly thought she had under her feet at last.
I loved this story. I loved finding a resourceful, realistic, interesting, and strong female main character, and especially one who wasn't restricted to being white! I loved that naiveté is not confused with stupidity here. I loved that the novel was not forcibly set in the USA, because you know we can't possibly have an entertaining novel which isn't! I recommend this novel and I look forward to reading the two sequels.