The Star Locket
by Natalie Jane Prior
Published by HarperCollins Australia
288 pages, 2006
When Magic Stinks
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
In a previous novel, the Davitt Award-winning Fireworks and Darkness, Natalie Jane Prior told the story of Casimir Runciman, a teenage boy living in Ostermark, a fictional country that is not unlike early 18th century Austria, though it isn't.
Casimir's father Simeon, in charge of the ruler's fireworks, had a dark secret -- he had been apprenticed to a black magician. Simeon's past was catching up with him and Casimir was caught up in the whole mess. At the time, the author said that the issue was not so much the magic as the boy's relationship with his father and that it could just as easily have been that he had been an alcoholic or into drugs.
This novel, though a standalone, is set in the same country around 170 years later. Casimir, it seems, had worked hard to defeat magic and magicians. His descendants, the Casimirites, have the same beliefs about the evil of magic. The last of them are fighting the last magicians. It's made clear that magic, in general, is nasty. It literally stinks, with spells leaving nasty smells behind. That said, however, there isn't a clear-cut good-evil divide. The old woman, Anna, Casimir's last descendant, is a sympathetic character, arguing that the use of magic, any magic, is an attempt to control others and can't be allowed. She doesn't believe in using any methods necessary to defeat it, more than can be said of some of the other Casimirites. It is their willingness to use magic against magic that leads to the troubles faced by the characters in The Star Locket.
Estée Merton and Sally Taverner are two teenage girls, one the daughter of an English artist and his Ostermarkan wife, the other daughter of a British diplomat and his wife. The problem is that actually, both of them are the child -- one child -- of the novel's villain, Richard Greitz, and his Casimirite mistress, who had been sent especially to seduce him and acquire a magical artifact, the star locket of the title, the main source of his power. The child had been kidnapped at birth, along with the locket, and split, magically, into two children, adopted out and taken overseas, where they had lived until recently. The locket was also split; when it is rejoined or destroyed, there will be only one girl, the original. The other will vanish. Nobody is sure which of them is the original, which is the copy. What do you do when you know you might vanish at any moment? And what if you're one of those fighting magic and you know that if you destroy the locket one innocent girl will die and if you don't, the magicians will turn the country into their own territory?
This novel is intelligently written. It presents a real dilemma that has less to do with magic than with whether the end always justifies the means. Although there is some magic in the novel, it really isn't the main issue, and the author concentrates on the characters. The villain is not a nice man -- he is quite willing to kill to achieve his goals -- but his victims aren't always saintly themselves, and the Casimirites aren't all good guys: some are prepared to use terrorist tactics, including magic, to achieve their ends. You are sometimes able to sympathize with the villain, because he isn't a two-dimensional Dark Lord.
The Star Locket has been marketed as a standalone companion volume to Fireworks and Darkness and you don't need to have read the first one to enjoy this, but if you enjoy this one it is well worth going back and reading the story of Casimir. | September 2006
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.