Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: "The Paper Magician" by Charlie N. Holmberg

Charlie N. Holmberg's debut novel, The Paper Magician, is the first installment in a series that I will definitely continue to read due to its undeniable charm. Harry Potter fans will likely enjoy this story for its glimpses of another structured magical world, and fans of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus will enjoy the whimsical romance element. The ease of read makes this a quick getaway when compared to something complex in terms of language like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. So if you're looking for a story with some unique magic, romantic gestures, and the inherent darkness that accompanies power all steeped in a yet to be fully explored magical world, then this could be your next read.

Ceony Twill makes a compelling heroine in the story, showing up at Paper Magician Emery Thane's house to pursue an apprenticeship after graduating top in her class from a magical academy. However, Ceony's not too thrilled to be bonded to the element of paper as it was her dream to work with metal. And here is one of the most interesting parts of this world that begins to unfold: magicians magically bond with a particular object and from there on out their magic is worked through that object. Ceony begrudgingly makes her bond with paper, but her feelings toward folding, which is the paper magician's way of working magic, soon begins to change.

I adored everything having to do with Ceony's bond to paper and her growing understanding of what paper magic could do with more complex folds. Paper magicians also breathe life into their folds which takes whatever has been created to a whole new level. It's a very interesting and unique idea to focus on a single element versus the whole magical range of possibilities. By focusing the magician's power, Holmberg is able to create a neatly structured and seemingly intimate magical world. However, all of that changes as the crisis in the story begins to unfold.

The beginning of the story is well paced and Ceony's magical tutelage by Thane is endearing. However, as we learn more about Ceony through her internal dialogue and her passion for cooking and learning, the excitable and erratic Thane remains mysterious. This is where things in the story begin to shift into something that I didn't expect as a reader, and more than that; I wasn't particularly fond of the sudden change in pace.

Without giving too much away, I will say that Ceony becomes entangled with a Blood Magician in an effort to save Thane's life. The gesture on her part seems over the top considering that she hasn't known Thane for very long and her feelings for him are just developing. Yet, Ceony risks her life to save him and takes an unbelievable journey through the chambers of Thane's extracted heart to learn his past, his fears, his hopes and his consuming guilt. Think of the months and even years of relationship development that goes into getting to know a person and cram it all into one night literally inside the person's heart where their consciousness flits in and out of your pursuits.

As Ceony is chased through Thane's heart by his crazy ex-wife, she must use her basic folding knowledge to her advantage and outsmart the experienced magician that is pursuing her and simultaneously killing Thane. It's a twisted journey and a weird concept, but I went with it to a satisfactory and somewhat Austen-esque ending.

I want to read the next book in the series, because I want to learn more about this magical world that is only showed to the reader in brief glimpses. Initially, I thought this was done on purpose with the intention of keeping the character story at the forefront, however, my inability to place the story in a specific identifiable time and place became disconcerting. My hope is that as the series continues, Holmberg will flush the world building out and readers will understand more about the magical world these magicians practice their craft within. Is it a hidden world like Harry Potter's or is it an alternate world? If this seems like a question that should be answered in the first installment then you're right! However, given that this is Holmberg's debut, I'll allow a couple of missteps so long as she addresses these issues in the second installment.

In terms of character, I liked Ceony and her bravery and intelligence. However, her motivation would have been more believable had Homberg spent more time developing the growing bond between Ceony and Thane, and less time on what Ceony was cooking (even though I loved those edible details). Without the development of Thane's character earlier in the story, Ceony's heroic act feels overly sentimental and romantic. Even as she journeys through his heart, Thane seems more of an enigma than a real person, and I could never quite reconcile the fragments of Thane into a complete and complex character.

Yet, despite these areas of weakness I still enjoyed the story. I started reading this as soon as I finished the last Maze Runner book, and I was craving something light and magical, which is probably why the plot shift took me by such surprise. Unpredictability can be a good thing in a story if executed well, and Holmberg teeters on the edge of that ability. Let's hope her sophomore release, The Glass Magician, is more developed.


  1. It's the eary 1900s. Not sure when I found out, book 1 or 2. So I do wish she went into more detail about England at that time. I think until she flew out of the house, I didn't even realize it was London. But it only makes sense. It just didn't seem like the thing to happen in the US. Also, I think the names sounded more British.

    1. Yeah, she does a better job of placing the story in time in The Glass Magician. Initially, I wasn't certain of the location either and thought perhaps it was a made up city in England (like Diagon Alley or something). It eventually became apparent -- I think in the same place you figured it out as well.