Reviewed by Gillian Polack
Kate’s grandmother, Jillian, is a witch, though not, as Kate hastens to point out, in the way that most people know the word. Kate lives just outside a small Australian town and has her own special powers. She’s fascinated by Jarrod, a new kid at school, and it soon becomes clear that he’s not quite normal, himself. Soon events will bring them together and take them away from the familiar … and into the past.
About halfway through the novel I became a little worried. The sense of strong local knowledge and skimmed research work well in the parts of the novel set in the fantasy present. Emotional verities and the characters are both strong and this part of the novel is good, despite the intrusive first person present tense narrative and the occasionally erratic punctuation. In fact Curley’s narrative style is pleasant, and I would like to read something of hers told in third person or past tense (or, daringly, in both). I began to love this novel (despite my dislike of first person present tense), very early on.
It’s a young adult novel, and I’ve heard it argued that young adults can be presented tropes and stereotypes as if new, because they’re meeting them for the first time. To a certain extent this is true. If someone is meeting something for a first time, it’s new and sparkling and good writing can be used with old ideas with a great deal of success. The problem with Old Magic is that the tropes all relate to the Middle Ages. Curley largely bases her Medieval sections on common assumptions rather than on research and understanding. Medieval history isn’t an old trope in the kind of novel Curley is writing. She uses a sense of realism intertwined with a feeling for magic and personal power. The sense of reality is very important to her novel – the characters have to face real decisions in a real world for the novel to work, which means we have to believe in the decisions and in the world. In other words, a fake Middle Ages doesn’t work – she needed to create a more authentic feel for the past.
Also, the way the Middle Ages is used in fiction has changed. Writers such as Felicity Pulman put a lot of work into getting their history precisely nuanced. I don’t expect that level of nuance and precision in a time travel novel with emotional growth at its centre. I only expect enough history to make the novel work.
Alas, the parts of the novel set in the past have a false archaism in the language (what some of my friends call ‘Tisery twasery’) and just not enough research.The time travel section fails to give a sense of the Middle Ages. More research would have really made a big difference to the readability and even the believability of Old Magic. I don’t expect most fantasy novelists to know that Medieval peasants seldom travelled more than twenty miles in their life (the biggest market they were likely to attend being about that far from home) but I do expect them to think about the difference between London and the local town in terms of travel on foot and in terms of the peasant’s knowledge and ideals. I might even expect them to know the importance of York to the north of England in the Middle Ages, since it’s immediately obvious with just a little knowledge of English history (it has an archbishop, it used to be the capital of the North, etc). In other words, while a peasant travelling to York for work is unrealistic unless they’re from nearby, it’s believable, whereas a peasant from the far North of England travelling to London is just crazy. Unless it’s an artificial Middle Ages and strange things are going to be revealed to make all the historical impossibilities believable. This sort of thing is why the emotional truths that Curley explores are undermined by the past setting she uses.
So much in the Medieval section undermines the novel, from the nature of the peasant’s cottage to a stagnant moat. Quite obviously England was depopulated in the Middle Ages due to disease and the population growth that marked the period until the fourteenth century is a mystery. I don’t expect Curley to know about that population growth. I do expect her to know that stagnant moats and foul living conditions and a lack of basic geography are the stuff of Medieval Hollywood and give that feel to a novel, which is not what she needs to support the solid presence of the modern section of the novel.
In other words, the Middle Ages presented in this book upsets the reality of my reading experience so much that I can’t believe in the world or trust in the characters’ experiences. It’s colourful and there’s nothing wrong with the telling of the tale, but anyone with a feel for history will not enjoy it. Curley could have taken the whole thing further and made it into a story where the fundaments of life were awry due to deep and mysterious forces (ie: people were doomed to live in squalor) or she could have done a little more research into the Middle Ages and written something that was convincing. It’s a pity, but she does her whole novel a disservice and a great deal of potential is lost.
Enough of my whinging. The basic narrative is good and the main characters are nothing bad. Kate, in particular, is interesting and well-presented. It’s not a bad first novel. But oh, I do wish someone had warned Marianne Curley that some readers do care about history and like to be able to believe in the past and trust the past as much as they trust the present.