'The Rules of Magic' by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)
'The Rules of Magic' by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

Bewitching, beautifully told tale of magical science fiction

By Alan Peter Simmonds Time of article published Mar 30, 2018

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This is a classic narrative, but almost totally contemporary magical science fiction – with gossamer-like handling of the English language, and I loved being able to sink into a nether world of magic and make-believe. 

This is a story of three children, each rebellious in their own way, but knowingly bound by a single bond of being “different from others” without completely understanding why. Their troubled journey through adolescence and post-teenager life and their practical realisation that they are incapable of giving or receiving love is superbly described, with all its anguish and tribulations. They strive to be “normal” but their family history and its magical grip defies that at every instance. 

Franny, Jet, and brother Vincent are dominated by a tyrannical mother, whose list of things they may not do become holy grails, not so much of disobedience, but of defiant exploration. For instance, the children are made to accept their mother’s restrictions, again without really knowing why; their aim is to defy their mother at every opportunity, leading to on-going risks, with few rewards. Their mother insists there should be no “walking in the moonlight”, no wearing of red shoes (one girl is a redhead and covets red shoes), no wearing of black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic – all magical in nature. 

Needless to say, the children are faced by all of these. What they do know is that they can never fall in love – as they discover to their and others’ costs. I loved hearing about their aunt and so many others. I also loved hearing about New York City (always a favourite for me), and the books they read: The Magus, the diary of Maria Owens (their witch ancestor, burnt at the stake, hanged, or worse), The Scarlet Letter and more. 

The reader finds out how the children began to discover, almost incidentally, their magical abilities, beginning with a summer visit to their mother’s sister, about whom they knew almost nothing. One child is an animal whisperer, so wild birds “rest their cheeks” against hers. Her sister, instructed by her mother to “keep an eye” on her tempestuous and care-free redhead sibling, is overtaken by problems of her own. And their guitar-playing, free spirit of a younger brother, portrayed as the girls’ “go-to” protector and sometimes diffident “caretaker”, is perhaps the most magical of the trio. 

Relationships blossom, their interdependence and their continual quest for unobtainable answers makes one turn the pages in anticipation. My heart raced. I too found myself caught up in their spells, immersed in the intrigues and associations that I knew would certainly lead to disasters. I did not need much convincing; rather, confirmation. Sixth sense, or whatever one wants to call the gift of knowing what is going to happen, is part of what the book’s children and their family allude to as “the curse”. So often it is a harbinger of doom rather than deliverance and happiness. 

I also loved the addition into the story of John Hawthorne, a real person, known for his early and vocal role as one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials. John and his loathing for witches and magic is beautifully woven into this story. If you love magical realism, this is the perfect read for you. If you usually like to curl up with something less compelling and less disturbing, perhaps be brave and take the chance. 

The ending I will not even dare suggest to you. You will not be disappointed – this is brilliant.

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