One of the reasons my favourite literary device is magical realism is that it's so very... variable.
An author can turn it on to the lowest setting and a reader might not even notice the adjustment, just walk away sensing that the realistic-setting novel they just read seemed a bit more warm or even magical feeling than normal. To the other extreme, jacking that magical realism up to the breaking point, the author courts a fantasy categorization and it's up to the individual author - and their readers - to decide for themselves whether it tips over into that genre.
A lot of readers have identified this novel as being a fantasy, with certainty. I'm going to go ahead and declare it to be magical realism, for my personalized categorization, while easily acknowledging that I completely understand why anyone wants to call it a fantasy.
And I loved the magical realism here. So much so that it makes me sad to realize I haven't read much magical realism lately, despite it being my favourite. Henry Holt kindly allowed me a digital advanced copy of Mahoney's second novel and I spent a lot of time selecting words and checking them against the dictionary to see if they were real. Some things, like the winterbears, were clearly created by the author but other things, like food, I never knew until I looked it up as to whether it was a real thing or not. This is because Mahoney does a fantastic job of integrating the real-life elements with the bordering-on-fantasy elements, conjuring a magical world that is addictive.
"Cravens spiraled by, making Molly flinch. These were tiny black birds that traveled by the hundred, terrified of everything and huddled into swarms. They flew towards a tree but the tree scared them off, and so they whirled, dark and fluid, in a smooth gorgeous panic."
I made the decision to consider this magical realism because when one first starts reading it, it feels like a novel set simply during colonization in, say, the eastern United States. Despite there being plants and creatures and definitely weather events - these were my favourite element, actually - that were clearly not of our normal environment, they only bordered or slightly bled into the supernatural or fantasy elements.
There is a bit of messiness here. Please recognize that the edition that I read of this novel was an advanced reader's copy (this should also be taken into consideration with the above quote), and so it's entirely possible that some things were smoothed out and changed before the actual publication. Given that, at least in the copy I read, there were some seemingly disjointed jumps that were confusing. I'd be reading along, turn the digital page, and feel like I must've skipped a page because I was confused by what I next read - but I'd go back and that wasn't the case. It happened frequently with transitions within a scene, and I wasn't sure of this was intended to be a literary technique or maybe simply that some minor editing was needed.
But these complaints are tiny. I've read rumors online (though I have been unable to verify them), that there's a sequel intended. The ending could indicate a mostly-resolution but does veer more towards a possible sequel, which would make me happy. I'll definitely pick it up, if so.