Review of "Magic or Madness" Trilogy
Why I'm reading a young adult series has a bit of a back story, explained below. Why I'm reviewing it is just because I haven't seen a lot of reviews of this series around and it deserves some wider coverage, at least in Google searches.
Amongst the numerous blogs I read regularly are half a dozen or so by professional authors. Some of these are people whose books I read and enjoy — I've mentioned John Scalzi here before, for example. Others are people I've come across in one way or another, usually via an author's site I'm already reading. These blogs add a nice extra layer to books, because you can see them being developed, watch the author's excitement as they are released and read the readers' comment. Over the past couple of years, I've probably bought maybe a dozen books based on recommendations or curiosity from these writers.
For various reasons (mostly because they're interesting), some of the author sites I'm reading are"young adult" authors. Now, I'm not particularly young any longer (mid-30's-ish these days) and I'm not even particularly adult. However, having read along as Justine Larbalestier finished the third book of her trilogy and seen the eager comments from her young (I assume) fans, I thought I'd find out what goes into a good young adult novel these days. It was more of an curiosity satisfier than looking for a good book.
The Australian release date for Magic's Child came and went without it appearing in my local Border's — they still haven't got it on the shelves when I checked today — so I did what every decent person with a credit card would do: ordered the series of three books from Amazon.
I figured you can't just dive in and read the third book of a trilogy, so I read all three, Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons and Magic's Child. They were great fun.
Short version: 8 or 9 out of 10 from somebody way outside the target demographic.
I read fairly fast and at 270-odd pages each, the books felt very short, but I guess this isn't atypical for the genre (based on a rough sampling of books in the teenage section of the local bookshops). Since the timeline of the entire trilogy is only one and a half weeks (with the exception of a jump right at the end of book three), reading one book a night didn't feel like I was rushing the story at all.
Very hard to give much of a synopsis of the storyline, since so much is revealed in a way that is contrary to where you think it is going as you read along. However, generally, the books follow the adventures of three teenagers who have magical powers, but in a universe where magic is not a wonderous gift, but more of a curse — both using it and not using it have grave consequences. There seems to be not a lot of upside to having magical powers in this particular world, beyond short-term gratification, so the concept gives support to a great story about the three protagonsists learning about the wider implication of their "gift" and each dealing with it in their own way. The trade-off between short-term pleasure and long-term responsibility is at the front of the decisions throughout and I think Larbalestier has done a great job of capturing how people of that age might try to deal with the problems. They want to be grown up, but sometimes they just want to be kids, too.
The three main characters were just annoying enough that I figured they had to be well written. Likeable in most places, but you want to throttle them every couple of dozen pages or so. Pretty much normal teenagers, from my experience.
The books are set jointly in New York, USA and Sydney, Australia. Larbalestier is an Australian, married to a Texan (Scott Westerfeld), who lives in both cities. I usually cringe a bit when I'm reading Australian writers writing about Australia for overseas readers (or worse, movies that try to do the same — some of them are just plain awful). However, in this case, I think she's captured the differences between the countries without making either culture seem freaky. There's even some quite realistic-sounding scenes about life in Aboriginal camps and outback townships. The protagonsists tease each other about their different ways of speaking, but it highlights the differences without making them seem wrong. I am (clearly) not a writer, so it's hard to capture quite why this works in this case, for me, and not always in other books.
Since I travel a bit between Australia and the US for work and I love New York (and live in the northern suburbs of Sydney), the descriptions about the differences between Manhattan and Sydney really resonated. It's a lovely city, but it's so different in many ways. Their (the United States peoples') love of all-day breakfasts and serving sizes that could feed a small family of four alone, is something that I have pegged as iconically dentifying about that country and it's one of the many small differences brought out as the characters move between the two countries.
I've been struggling for a few days to put my finger on exactly why I like these books. The storyline isn't particularly complicated. I think it's the characters. Setting aside the slightly flukey setup that all three of them met up in the same ten day period that they had to make life-and-death decisions, which I found a little contrived at first, they are basically very human people. They have real and different interests: The boy, Tom, has an interest in fashion and creating clothes, which is unusual but doesn't feel out of place. One of the girls, Reason, keeps order in her thinking through mathematics and problem solving, so the Fibonacci sequence and perfect numbers put in a regular appearance (making this another entry on my list of books with cool female lead characters who are mathematicians in some sense). The other girl, Jay-Tee is the American and more of a nightlife and party girl. Each characters interests and thinking was consistent and fit in with their behaviour throughout. I like characters with a some depth, but I hate it when they seem to have been brought up with ridiculously improbable and fortuitious things happening in their childhood or present. Okay, in this case, some of the characters have magical powers and that's bordering on the improbable. But the rest of their experiences weren't completely far-fetched. The short verison is that I prefer intelligent, ordinary background characters to Ritchie Rich-style protagonists.
I also really enjoyed the frequency with which I would just start to draw conclusions about one of the characters and my assumption would be challenged (and turn out to be wrong). The timing here was uncanny — I think Larbalestier has a good intuitive sense of how fast the reader is going to form an impression, let's it just start to take root and then has a good laugh to herself as she removes the chair you're sitting on. Either that or she needs to get out of my head, because it was uncanny. This wasn't so apparent in book three as in the earlier books, though, so either I was becoming more wary, or by the time the third book was written, we already knew too much about the characters for much to be surprising. Still, there were a few nice moments of timing even in the third book and it's a writing style I'm going to want to think about a bit more: how does it work so effectively here?
Would I recommend reading this series? Absolutely. I really enjoyed them a lot more than I expected to.
Would I recommend buying them? Harder to say. If you're me, maybe not worth it. Books are not cheap these days and these three were a bit short for three volumes. On the other hand, if I was a teenage me, I would beg somebody to buy them for me or save up my money and go for it (of course, how would I know I liked them so much in that case? And wouldn't Justine Larbalestier be too young to be a published author back then... hmmm). If I was a parent looking for a present for my well-behaved, all her homework done on time, child: definitely.