Magic or Madness
All her life, Reason has heard about her evil grandmother Esmerelda: how she believes in magic (which doesn’t exist), how she sacrifices babies and small animals in her rituals, how you have to move counter-clockwise in her house to keep the magical energy flowing properly. Reason’s mother, Serafina, escaped from her when she was a teenager, and has been hiding with Reason in the Austrailian bush ever since. But when Serafina suddenly goes insane, the authorities send Reason to live with Esmerelda.
Soon Reason finds that her mother’s stories aren’t entirely true: Esmerelda’s house is bright and clean, with electricity and running water, and there don’t seem to be any rituals going on. But there’s a door that’s always locked, and something buried in the cellar, and a graveyard full of Reason’s ancestors, who all died young. When Reason opens the mysterious door and finds herself in New York, she’s forced to admit the unthinkable: magic is real. As Reason struggles to figure out who is her friend and who is her enemy, the story alternates between her POV and two other teenagers: Tom, Esmeralda’s apprentice, and Jay-Tee, a magically gifted girl living in New York.
This is really an excellent book. Larbalestier has the voices of her three narrators absolutely nailed, and she paces the alternating POVs so that, while some of the things that Reason discovers are obvious from the get-go, others are just as much of a surprise to the reader as they are to her. The characterizations were quite lively and vivid as well; I was especially impressed with Tom, simply because it’s so unusual for a book to have a teenaged male character who wants to be a fashion designer. Larbalestier also portrays the magic very convincingly; she not only avoids all clichés of glowy white blobs, but she realizes–and successfully portrays–just how unsettling it would be to discover that the laws of reality weren’t what you supposed. The only unsatisfying thing about the book is that it’s the first of a series, so the ending raises as many questions as it answers.
Morally, there isn’t a huge amount to be said about this book. While the magic in it is definitely not occult, it does force some . . . difficult choices on the magically gifted; Larbalestier handles these choices competantly and within a framework of traditional morality. Content-wise, there isn’t much beyond a little swearing; it’s definitely okay for anyone old enough to enjoy it.