Magic Lessons
Justine Larbalestier

Magic or Madness #2
Category: Fantasy, Young Adult
Morality: B-
Writing: B-

Reason Cansino has accepted that magic is real, she’s escaped her evil grandfather Justin Blake, and she’s decided to somewhat trust her strange grandmother Esmeralda. But Reason still has problems: she–and her friends Jay-Tee and Tom–still face the awful choice of using their magic and dying young, or refusing it and going mad. Then a strange creature steps through Esmeralda’s magical door between New York and Sydney, and soon Reason finds herself back in New York, trying to fend off Jason Blake again while coming a little too palpably face-to-face with her family’s history–and trying to deal with her attraction to Jay-Tee’s older brother, Danny.

Magic Lessons is an extremely engaging sequel, where the stakes go up and the plot lines tangle and the characters remain extremely likable. Larbalestier does not back away from the dilemma she has created for her characters, but instead makes it at once clearer and more complex: she shows even more vividly the price of magic, and she makes it understandable why some magic-workers turn to preying on each other to survive. Her descriptions of the magic itself continue in the same concrete, physically-oriented vein of the last book–a welcome change after one too many novels with glowing energy fields. Most importantly, the characters remain interesting and sympathetic; I especially enjoyed Reason, whose upbringing in the Australian bush has made her a mix of innocence and experience that is surprising while still ringing true.

The main flaw of the book is that it isn’t Book Two so much as it’s Book Three, Part I. Larbalestier introduces and complicates a host of plot threads without really resolving any of them. If you have the third book available, then you’ll sail onwards happily, enjoying the story’s momentum. If not, you’ll still have a good time, but you’ll close the covers feeling really frustrated.

On a moral level, Magic Lessons continues the same basic moral dilemma of the first book, and continues the same basically good message: Don’t suck out other people’s life force so you can live longer. The main new element is Reason’s attraction to Danny, which quickly results in sex. Reason is impulsive and guilt-free in acting on her attraction, possibly because her mother raised her to regard it as a purely biological function, and her description of kissing Danny is creepily clinical: “I felt my nervous animal responses: pulse rate, sweat, my eyelids fluttering, an uneven twitch in one of the muscles of my left cheek. Just like any other animal, Sarafina had told me when she explained the facts of life.”

This is, needless to say, not a Christian attitude towards sex. It’s also, even from a non-religious point of view, pretty low on human dignity, and Reason’s own thoughts immediately following seem to undercut it: “I didn’t feel like any other animal. I felt like me.” Ultimately, though, Magic Lessons does not reach enough of a conclusion to put Reason’s actions in a context one way or the other, and without seeing how the narrative ultimately handles the sex, it’s difficult to pass judgment on it.

Content-wise, the book obviously has sex. It (thankfully) fades to black before things get truly explicit, but there are still some pretty detailed descriptions of making out, so it’s not appropriate for really young readers.

Posted by Rose | March 6, 2008

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