Cursebreakers Madeleine Nakamura starred book review
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STARRED Book Review: Cursebreakers

CURSEBREAKERS by Madeleine Nakamura is a novel as electric as the lightning-bolt magic its protagonist wields, filled with curses, destruction, and piercing heartache.


by Madeleine Nakamura

Genre: Fantasy / Wizards & Witches

ISBN: 9781939096128

Print Length: 284 pages

Publisher: Canis Major Books

Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph

Sometimes vicious and violent; all times spectacular and sweet.

Cursebreakers is nonstop action, pierced with so much heart and heightened emotion on both ends of the scale. It follows Professor Adrien Desfourneaux, who finds himself entangled in the life-threatening position of preventing a magical coup linked to a rapidly increasing number of comatose victims—while he is experiencing a significant flare-up of his bipolar disorder symptoms. 

Not only are the intricate magic systems explained with wondrous clarity in this fantasy, but the concepts hold so much beauty, meaning, and political truth. The story hits all the beats that light a fire in my heart: Exceptional mental illness and addiction representation, casual queerness, found family leaning so strongly into loyalty that it tends toward murderous. 

This novel is a razor-sharp depiction of the support required to manage addiction recovery and life with a mental illness. Nakamura provides Adrien with a “keeper” named Casmir; it’s a role that functions like a sponsor for a recovering addict, offering even more practical support.

“Casmir lived with me when I needed him,” Adrien explains, “kept track of my finances and took what he was owed, kept me from my manic excesses, kept me—excuse the indelicacy—from suicide.”

Casmir is an old friend and a man that Adrien has been in unrequited love with for years. “Even soaked to the bone, he looked lovely,” Adrien tells us of Casmir. “I could stand it all, I thought, if he kissed me.” The romance in Adrien’s narration of Casmir is unmistakeable, undeniable, almost painfully relatable. This isn’t a romance novel, but the hopeless adoration evident in the way Adrien sees his friend is comparable to any of the most romantic stories I’ve read. Like all of Cursebreakers’ cast, Casmir and Adrien’s relationship goes through major changes, both daring and devastating. At every turn, Nakamura infuses their interactions with an astonishing amount of authenticity to the human experience. 

Nakamura nails the portrayal of Gennady, a character who was raised as a soldier from childhood and provided with weapons and battle training in place of nurturing emotional support. Gennady’s storyline is an example of the incredible generosity that Nakamura shows her characters, inspiring trust from the reader—particularly marginalized and systemically vulnerable readers—on a sincere, supportive level that I’ve never experienced before.

Cursebreakers allows readers to see the awful damage that being raised under the mindset and metaphorical fist of a military institution does to young people, and reminds us that these children are neither to blame for their maladjustment to society, nor are they irredeemable.

As a person who has lived with bipolar and in addiction recovery for exactly as long as Adrien has, I often felt overwhelmed with emotion reading the most casual phrasing, simply because I’d never seen so many facets of my life, myself, and internal dialogue that I’d barely acknowledged or noticed before written down like this. The author’s representation of living with bipolar is reflective, insightful, and poetic. It’s clear that she (and everyone in Adrien’s life) takes both his illness and his wellness seriously.

Because this story is always told from Adrien’s perspective, Nakamura manages to cover everything from how mania makes him lose his sense of time to the many times he ask himself: “I can never trust myself. My judgment is worthless. My instincts are perennially suspect. Every emotion is a potential mirage; my basic self is pathologized.” As Adrien is drawn deeper into this poisonous inner world of a magical coup being staged, he must make high-stakes decisions and devise high-risk strategies to save countless lives (including his own).

I was floored by the accuracy of Adrien making calculations of his mood against the reality he observes—“It’s difficult for me to navigate the world in that state. It’s a process of estimation: How quickly am I speaking? How much am I smiling? Do I make sense? A bright haze covers everything in sight.”—and his ability to register phases of doubt in the eyes of his loved ones.

His experience will be familiar to anyone who has lived with the dread and nausea of resignation to the fact that your word will not be trusted. Thankfully, this does not last forever, and eventually his found family and trusted allies come together to work with him: “It hit me then—that I was being believed, finally, that no matter what other perils had arrived, my best friend no longer thought I was losing my mind.” This phase of the story ignites beloved tropes of unlikely teammates and reluctant partners going to war together, in tandem with the winning formula of a fiercely loyal crew who would kill for you at a moment’s notice. These characters come alive off the page in a way that is rare and precious and will no doubt fuel the rise of a powerful fandom.

Content warnings are necessary for depiction of self-harm, near domestic violence, addiction, opioids, and relapse. Most importantly to me: Even at his most “bright and brittle,” Adrien is respected and honored by the author, and our fierce narrator knows himself.

As a reader who has been in the same mental state at various points, I never felt talked down to, stereotyped, or used for a plot twist. Every twist feels true to who Adrien is and what he’s going through. I’d also warn that there’s occasional mention of the word “crazy” in reference to Adrien’s mental health, but it comes with no malice and from someone who is also neurodivergent; thus it feels more like a reclaiming of the word to signal a bond forming between them than a slur. 

That bond—between Gennady, a “troubled kid” in an impossible situation with a horrific childhood, and Adrien, the reluctant older man who sees the person the exploited kid could become if he is shown a little kindness—is everything. I found myself reading and rereading their interactions, already imagining the fan art and fan fiction that would come from each scene. By the end of the story, I was certain I would do anything in defense of this kid. Gennady lit up my world so much that I began to notice I had a huge smile on my face every time he appeared on page. Their relationship meant so much to me that I cried in the scenes that show how far they’ve come together at the end.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a quest for good happening against all odds and a creatively twisted political climate, but especially for those who don’t often see themselves represented as leads in an exhilarating, meaningful adventure: People with bipolar, queer people, people who have been in unrequited love with someone whose help they desperately need and who they cannot escape.

Cursebreakers is an immediate addition to my all-time favorite books list. It’s already been a comfort to dive back into it in writing this review. It took me twice as long to read because I kept rereading scenes that I loved (particularly of the dynamic between Adrien and Gennady). My time away from these pages was spent missing the characters like I miss my friends. 

If you loved The Tarot Sequence series by KD Edwards or the Six of Crows series, this book would be great for you. I need a Cursebreakers prequel or sequel and would gladly read books from any of the main or side characters’ perspectives to do so. Each character is multifaceted and vibrantly realized in a way that makes spinoffs possible and makes me excited at the possibilities.

This feels like some of the most empathetic, compassionate writing I’ve ever read. The way Nakamura writes about child soldiers, longtime friends, mental health carers, academic research pursuits, and the moral quandaries teachers face when tasked with mentoring their students is inspiring on a profoundly human level.

Cursebreakers is outrageously good—phenomenal, even. This is a novel as electric as the lightning-bolt magic its protagonist wields, filled with curses, destruction, and piercing heartache. It’s an ode to true, enduring friendship and a call to believe in our capacity for good.

Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of Cursebreakers by Madeleine Nakamura! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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