open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
When I decided to read The Paper Magician, I was expecting a story about magic and romance with a historical setting. It had been a long time since I read anything with those three elements in one story – and one that’s competently written – so when I read the blurb, I had a feeling that this book might give me what I want. And indeed, I got exactly what I expected from this debut novel by American author Charlie N. Holmberg. But did it fulfill my reading needs? Not entirely.
Technically I couldn’t find any fault with the writing. It was, as I said, well written. Many romance novels by new authors that I find lately – historical, paranormal or otherwise – aren’t always so flawless in grammar, spelling or even punctuation. But Holmberg’s novel doesn’t suffer from that. The style is clean (no stray commas or apostrophes where there shouldn’t be), straightforward (by which I mean there are no flowery phrases to be found anywhere in the book) and comfortable (which I suspected reflects the author’s confidence in her writing). If all new authors wrote like Holmberg, I’m confident the publishing industry will continue to thrive.
What’s also commendable from this debut novel is the magical world our main characters, a young lady named Ceony Twill who is apprenticed to the titular magician Emery Thane, live in. In this world, magicians bond to man-made materials – paper, glass, metals, etc. – and pursue careers based on their bond to that material. There is a school – Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined – where Ceony studied before she went into apprenticeship and there is a council of sorts that govern the magicians. Magicians practicing the dark arts of using human flesh and blood are called Excisioners, of which Ceony and Magician Thane come face to face with in the story. While not quite the height of originality, the author still enticed me with the kind of magic Ceony dealt with, particularly paper magic. You won’t be mistaken for thinking “is this like origami but with spells and enchantments?” But that’s not all there is to it.
Holmberg makes paper magic sounds challenging – and I personally would despair if I had to do it, too – especially because this particular material can be very exciting (making a skeletal butler out of paper? FUN!) and at the same time rather pointless (snowflakes out of paper? That’s just making your life difficult with more cleaning.) The first part of the book deals with Ceony’s feelings about paper magic: it was mixed. She was torn about this material that she was ‘forced’ to bond with and that feeling didn’t feel resolved in the end. I appreciate how Holmberg didn’t delve into how the magic works (it would’ve taken some of the fun) and how she also didn’t make Ceony go wide-eyed in fascination by the new things she discovered (that would’ve been juvenile). In fact this character’s reactions are not just amusing and engaging, but also somewhat to the benefit of the readers. It was as if she was saying “there is magic, yes, but even I – like you, reader – still don’t entirely get it either.”
But that’s where the magic, so to speak, ends. Other than Ceony’s uncertainties to magic, I find her other main interest in the story rather dull. Namely, she was attracted to her mentor, Magician Thane. She alternated between mistrusting him, finding him odd and completely head over heels with him. The progression from “I don’t like you and I don’t trust you” to “you are amazing and I’m falling in love with you” was unbelievable. I don’t need romances in novels such as these to be realistic – if I was looking for realism, I’d read a memoir – but I do want to feel invested in their romance. Ceony’s one-sided love for Emery didn’t convince me because her reason for loving him struck me as flimsy.
It was her discovery that Emery Thane was the one who granted her scholarship at the school for magicians that suddenly caused a change of heart for Ceony. It was jarring to find that our main character suddenly started feeling affectionate towards this man, when she – and us the readers – hadn’t found out more about him. Even more startling was how we finally learned about him.
The story was walking at an even, but leisurely, pace… until the moment when a female Excisioner named Lira attacked Emery and literally stole his heart. As in, ripped it out of his body and carried it away to parts unknown. Ceony decided to go after her and retrieve the heart, and through some spell of Lira’s doing, she ended up trapped inside her teacher’s heart and had to go through all four chambers and ‘feelings’. She learned things about him by going through the places where he kept memories of his past, his hopes, his insecurities and whatnot. While this was a thrilling part to go through – imagine being trapped inside a human heart while being chased by an evil magician! Take that, Pixar’s Inside Out! – I had misgivings about the voyeuristic nature of the practice. It seemed invasive and not at all the correct way to fall in love with someone. But of course, this is not my story. This is Ceony’s story and this is what happened to her.
I successfully suspended my disbelief for the magical aspects of their world, but I couldn’t manage the same for their love story. Everything about the romance felt like they happened too fast, too whimsical, to be credible.
This also affected the villain’s role in the story. Lira, as the antagonist, seemed gung-ho in… something. What that something is didn’t immediately become clear to me because it took us a while to discover that she was Emery’s ex-wife. It was clear that Lira was jealous of Ceony, but how she went from being married to the master of paper to being evil and practicing dark magic was something that was left out of the story. It was like one day life was nice but the next day, your heart could be literally stolen while you were having dinner. What happened in between was unclear. This seems more of a plot problem than a characterization problem but even Ceony traveling inside Emery’s heart and learning of his most private secrets and feelings didn’t give us any clear reason for such villainy. By the time she survived the trip, I was already exhausted from trying guess everyone’s motives and backgrounds that I stopped caring about why she was there in the first place.
To vaguely compare this novel to others, it’s not the first time we see concepts of ‘love at first sight’ in a romance novel. However, in many of them that love was followed by a long, often convoluted courtship filled with lust and shenanigans. The Paper Magician avoided the tropes, but in this case, it probably might have benefited more from them. One could argue that this is not a ‘pure’ romance novel so it doesn’t need any depictions of lust and other shenanigans, and yes, that argument could just win the debate. After all, this book is mostly a fantasy about magic and near-murders. But I’m adamant that The Paper Magician could’ve learned something about building chemistry between characters from its predecessors.
I wondered to myself if adding Emery’s voice or point of view to the story would lend more believability to the romance between Ceony and Emery… and I still don’t know. I just feel like there’s something missing between them that cost The Paper Magician an edge and cause it to fall slightly short of my entire expectations.
The good news is this love story can still be credible in the sequel, The Glass Magician. As such, I’ll try to keep a low expectation for the next one and maybe I’ll be surprised.