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Book Review: ‘Cursebreakers’ by Madeleine Nakamura

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Adrien Desfourneaux is currently a professor of magic but he used to be a physician. Instead of teaching about magic, he used it to heal people. Until the day he went too far and was almost branded a witch. The victims of that tragedy are still lying comatose in the Chirurgeonate (hospital) years later. But now something is happening. An unexplained sickness is leaving more and more otherwise healthy people comatose, with symptoms eerily similar to what happened to Desfourneaux’s patients. Who is causing it now, and why? Desfourneaux is sure that he is the only one who can find the answers. But can he do it before the entire city is afflicted? All this and more in Cursebreakers by Madeleine Nakamura!

[Warning: Contained in this book are instances of suicidal ideations. For more information or if you need help visit the website or call 988 to speak to someone.]

[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Red Hen Press for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of Cursebreakers contains some spoilers!]

A world of suspicion in Madeleine Nakamura’s Cursebreakers

Astrum is a world of magic, but not everyone has the ability to use that magic. This has caused those without magic to be highly distrustful of those with it. Magic wielders are educated at the Pharmakeia and must be licensed. Practicing without a license, or using magic to do anything harmful or illegal will earn you the sentence of witch, and prison time.

Meanwhile, those without magic join the military to police everyone else. The military has few restrictions and challenging an officer can bring about an instant death sentence. This uneasy power struggle has led to an insane amount of tension in Astrum. The magicians don’t trust the military, the military doesn’t trust the magicians, and everyone is scared all the time.

In the middle of all this tension is Professor Adrien Desfourneaux. Right now he teaches the theory of magic to obnoxious first years at the Pharmakeia. But he used to be a prominent physician at the Chirurgeonate. Until he attempted to use mind magic to heal some patients, and they never woke up. He and several colleagues who tried the experimental procedure with him were all tried as witches. In the end, they were cleared but the damage to their reputations was done. He would never be a physician again and many people would ostracize him, still believing him guilty of wrongdoing.

A heavy load to bear

Desfourneaux struggles with his guilt every day. But he also struggles with dithymic akrasia (there is no dithymic akrasia in the DSM 5, but from the descriptions in the book it could be a form of bipolar disorder). These two stresses team up to cause all kinds of havoc in Desfourneaux’s life from time to time. And the time is upon him again.

As his dithymic akrasia begins to flare up, he also becomes aware of a conspiracy harming Astrum’s citizens. People are suddenly drifting into comas that are very similar to what his old patients are suffering from. What’s more, the patients who previously had no magic, are developing it. while they are in their comas.

Desfourneaux isn’t sure what’s going on but he is sure that he’s the only one who can stop it. That may be the dithymic akrasia talking, but with the help of Gennady, a military grunt who is worried about his friends, he plans to do more than just talk, he plans to break the curse. And bring those responsible for it to justice.

Cursebreakers has a good concept but falls flat

With a concept that boils down to “a bipolar magician falling into a manic state teams up with a sadistic military grunt to expose a conspiracy and save innocent people from a curse” you would expect an exciting, action-packed story. Unfortunately, Nakamura doesn’t deliver on this promise. Cursebreakers just came across as, well, boring. Desfourneaux just wasn’t a fascinating character. He did boring things in boring ways and had boring thoughts about them. Gennady was flat. He didn’t seem to care who he inflicted fear or pain on, as long as he got to bully someone he was happy. 

Cursebreakers cover

Desfourneaux’s friends seemed resigned to his character flaws but didn’t really seem to enjoy anything about his company to make them actually want to be his friends. The relationships felt more like something the author wanted to exist than something that would actually exist. No one really leaped out as a character that could be related to, emulated, or enjoyed. I never made a connection to any of them and that made the story really hard to get through.

Please just spell things normally!

So this might be my personal pet peeve, but I hate when fantasy writers spell things “uniquely” to make them seem special or different. What is wrong with “Harry” or “Sally”? What is wrong with “violet hill” or “east meadow”? Obviously, these are exaggerations of how simple names can be and there’s nothing wrong with variety or ethnic names. But adding “-ika” or “-ppe” or swapping every “c” with a “k” and every single vowel with a “y” (again, just examples, not specifics) does not make the story more interesting or unique, it just makes it harder to read and slows down readers who have to stop and concentrate on pronunciation instead of focusing on content.

Making up words for things that already exist is also really annoying and distracting. It’s a trend that really drives me nuts and I will be so glad when fantasy writers get over it! 

Thank you for listening to my rant. It was relevant though because Nakamura does this exact thing and it made it hard to follow along with the story. Especially the number of made-up words that I had to try and puzzle through just made it difficult to ever connect with the story. There are better ways to make a fantasy world seem unique, renaming things and inventive spelling should be used very sparingly.

Not really worth it

I feel bad when I can’t find anything nice to say about a book. Nakamura does have an interesting concept buried in Cursebreakers but I had to dig too hard to really enjoy getting to it. There might be some people out there who like the idea of examining mental illness and magic side-by-side who will enjoy Defourneaux’s story. But it just wasn’t for me.

My Rating: 5/10

Madeleine Nakamura’s Cursebreakers it’s available on September 12th if you still want to give it a try. Will you be checking it out? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.

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Luna Gauthier

I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter

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