Book: “The Paper Magician” by Charlie N. Holmberg
Publishing Info: 47North, September 2014
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic… forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined — animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner — a practitioner of dark, flesh magic — invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.
Review: I was very excited when this book showed up for me at the library. The description sounded like something that hit all of my book preferences, and, even better, it’s the first in a completed trilogy! There’s nothing like finding a good series that you can read all at once. Nowadays, I feel like I’m constantly stuck in a waiting game for the next book to be published in the million and one series that I am following all at once! So the ability to truly binge read something from start to finish is an opportunity that I very much value. However, while I did like portions of this book and will ultimately most likely continue the series, I’m also not invested enough to binge it either, which is too bad.
The set up, as mentioned above, is exactly what I like: a spunky heroine set in past period in time where magic is an established element of society. I also always enjoy the apprenticeship angle that is often found in these stories. And while I was recently relieved to find a lack of romance in “Jackaby,” I was warned ahead of time with this one that that was where we would be going, so I had already bought in to this formula. All this in its favor, the book was still very hit and miss for me.
A definite hit was the magic system that the author has created where magicians must “bond” with a type of material. Ceony has dreamed of bonding to metal, a powerful element that would allow her to create and manipulate powerful machines and weapons. But instead she gets assigned to paper, an element that has long been scorned and neglected, resulting in a deficit of this type of magician. I loved the description of this magic system. There was the more expected paper magic (like origami birds that come to life), but also some very creative takes on what one can accomplish with this type of material. At one point Ceony creates a perfect paper fan that is capable of producing massive forces of wind. There’s also a really interesting idea that has to do with bringing to life images read off paper, like scenes from a book brought to shadowy life. And while some of these things seem frivolous (we are likely to judge them similarly to Ceony herself), the author does a great job throughout the latter half of the story really pushing the boundaries of our expectations. There’s an especially interesting twist on the “story reading” magic towards the end that is probably the biggest hook for me to continue the series all together.
Ceony herself is a perfectly fine protagonist. We don’t get a lot from her, really. Through a few flashbacks, we see a bit of what has gone before in her life, but there are as many questions left unanswered as those that are resolved. In particular, there are several references to her fear of water that never get fully explored. And while I’m all for leaving clues for future stories, these felt a bit to roughly placed and stood out in an awkward way.
This is even more noticeable by the strange shift the book takes about halfway through to become a story completely comprised of flashback scenes. The method the author uses to get us to this place is interesting, but I’m not sure this flashback portion is ever quite earned. We’ve barely met Ceony and have had only a few scenes with her mentor, Thane. So, not only do we lose out on any growth in their relationships (all of these scenes take place in a type of alternative dimension where Thane is largely only present as re-incarnations of his past self), but we’re stuck reading half a book’s worth of a deep dive into a character we barely care about. Perhaps if this had happened in a second book in a series it would have played better. But in a book that’s only 220 pages long, we’re not given enough to begin with to sustain this type of ploy.
To end on a good note, I did enjoy the fact that Ceony was left to operate on her own throughout much of this book with only the company of her paper dog, Fennel. Let’s be honest, the dog was probably my favorite character and the only one that ever truly elicited an actual emotion from me!
I will probably continue the series, just based on the strength and uniqueness of the magic system. But I do have some questions as far as the actual quality of the writing (at points it felt very bland and stilted) as well as some of the story arc decisions (like the choice to sink the last half of the story into a flashback sequence for a character who has literally only had about 15 pages of time prior to this).
Rating 6: Very much a “fine” novel. I’m more invested in Fennel, however, than either Ceony or Thane.
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