by Justine Larbalestier
Published by Razorbill
306 pages, 2007
Buy it online
When Magic is a Curse
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Magic's Child is the final volume in Justine Larbalestier’s young adult fantasy trilogy. It’s been an amazing ride.
It's not that nobody has written about the trials and tribulations of young magic-users, after all. But Harry, Hermione and Ron can at least expect to live to a ripe old age if they aren’t finished off by Lord Voldemort -- in fact, a riper old age than their fellow humans, not to mention that they’re tougher and able to survive long falls from broomsticks. Diana Wynne Jones’ Christopher Chant has multiple lives. Diane Duane’s young wizards might be less capable as they grow up, but they will grow up -- and magic is a matter of mathematical calculations, not likely to kill you in itself.
When Justine Larbalestier was planning out her trilogy, she didn’t mess around. She has contempt for the type of story that assumes magic has taken it out of you if you get a headache. You get a headache from a hangover, she pointed out once, at a conference I attended a couple of years ago.
No, if you’re one of Larbalestier’s magic-wielders, you’ve got just three options. You can use the magic with which you were born and die young. You can refuse to use it and become insane. Or, if you’re selfish enough, you can help yourself to someone else’s magic and thus live a little longer. When their finite supply of magic is gone, they die.
Reason Cansino’s mother, Sarafina, had run away from home in her early teens and had Reason soon after. Sarafina had been determined not to use her magic, or even admit it existed. Naming her child Reason was one way. Travelling around Australia, never living anywhere for long and teaching her daughter science were all intended to make her totally non-magical. At the start of the first novel, Magic or Madness, Sarafina was in a mental hospital in Sydney and Reason had to live with her grandmother, Esmeralda, whom she had been taught to fear. Esmeralda, who is also a magic-wielder, has survived to the amazing age of 45, partly because of care with her magic and partly less honorable ways, but she is nothing compared with Jason Blake, Reason’s grandfather. Jason is utterly selfish and doesn’t care who dies if he can stay alive a bit longer. However, he has other ambitions, which we find out in the current novel.
In the first novel, Reason discovered that there was a direct door between her grandmother’s Sydney home and New York City, where her nasty grandfather lives. While there, she met fellow magic-user Jay-Tee, who had her own problems, such as the fact that Jason Blake had been helping himself to her magic. In Sydney, she met Tom, Esmeralda’s neighbour and apprentice. The trio were trying to work out how to survive without becoming insane or dying young.
In Magic Lessons, Reason inherited the Cansino magic from an ancestor who had lived for centuries, and this might help her save her friends and her mother -- but, in the current novel, at a terrible price to herself and at a cost to them. Magic is connected with certain gifts: JayTee’s magic makes her a superb runner and Dance, Tom’s is connected with his gifts in designing and making clothes, Reason’s magic makes her a mathematical genius. So what happens if you switch it off? And what will happen to Reason if she doesn’t? Will her baby, conceived in Magic Lessons, be magic or not?
The trilogy is tightly written, a roller coaster ride all the way, with no wasted space. The characters are believable teenagers. They worry about having boyfriends or girlfriends. They do things the adults wouldn’t like. They let each other down. On the other hand, none of them has a normal family life. Reason and Tom both have mothers who have gone crazy. Jay-Tee is an orphan, whose mother became insane before dying young. The adult in her life is the evil Jason Blake.
This one ends satisfyingly. Prices are paid for the more or less happy ending, whether it’s accepting shorter life as the price for keeping magic and identity or losing magic and hoping longer life will make up for the loss of genius. And you wonder: what would you do? | April 2007
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.