It was some lovely serendipity that brought me to Charlie Holmberg’s, The Paper Magician. It’s part of Amazon’s Kindle First program where you pick among some novels about to be published whose price is included in your Prime membership. This is the second novel I acquired this way (Time Bound being the first). So far, the program is batting 1000. The serendipity part of this is the astonishing level of polish, comedic timing and ability to generate poignant moments in a first novel.
Breakdown of The Paper Magician Review:
- Humor & Pathos
- A Brilliant Plot Mechanism
- Clever & Caring V.S. Powerful & Selfish
- Arguments for the novel’s brilliance NOTE: Evidence includes SPOILERS
Early on in the book, I found myself alternately smiling and chuckling at the protagonist, Ceony Twill, and her interaction with Magician Emery Thane, the magician to whom she’s apprenticed. Set in turn of the 20th century London, Ceony has just graduated from well-regarded school for magicians and now must take up her apprenticeship. In Ms. Holmberg’s well-constructed world, magicians must bind themselves to a material such as glass, metal or paper and may practice magic only with it. Mg. Thane is a Folder (bound to Paper) and that’s considered about as sexy as it sounds. Ceony did well at school and would normally have a choice of materials among which she may bind herself. There are, however, a dearth of Folders, primarily due to the aforementioned lack of sexiness, and so the school assigned her to Paper. She is less than thrilled.
Ceony can come across a bit haughty and more than a little forthright in her dealings with those in authority. She certainly doesn’t back down. Mg. Thane keeps his cards close to the vest, betraying little except through his expressive eyes. Through her ties to Emery, Ceony becomes embroiled in an adventure, risking life and limb, against the nefarious Excisioners.
Before I dive in further, I want to mention a new, at least to me, practice of authors picking a playlist which ties to their book by reminding them of characters or would play well to certain scenes. Ms. Holmbrerg highlights her playlist here. It’s not necessarily music that would be in the background while you read although you could. I personally can’t read to singing but often read to other music (discussed here).
I’ll be honest, reviewing The Paper Magician presents a challenge. Part of the genius of the book are a number of brilliant choice points Ms. Holmberg makes, not only in the plot, but also the way in which she tells the story. The challenge is that the evidence for these moves lies within the realm of spoilers. We all know that special place in hell, to which Shepherd Book refers, reserved for those who take advantage of women is also reserved for those who spoil a story for others. So, for those who have yet to read, and you will want to read it, I’ll provide fairly generic reasons. Below a spoiler warning line, I’ll go into a bit more detail for those of you who’ve read it and want to see if we concur.
One aspect of Ms. Holmberg’s storytelling I love is her deft touch using both humor and pathos. She has a number of seemingly throw-away moments that have you smiling almost from the beginning. Typically these are through amusing situations and the responses within them rather than through funny dialog. I just know that I couldn’t help smiling through much of the story. The empathy and charity (or love, sometimes costly, resulting in action) displayed by Emery and, more surprisingly by Ceony as well, make for lovely moments of surprised joy and pain commingled with care. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a syrupy sweet novel. There’s some real nastiness on the part of the bad guys and moments of steely resolve from the good guys. It is precisely due to Ceony’s and Emery’s empathy and charity towards one another and others, however, that the moments of steel and indignation take on a bit more meaning and weight.
Another aspect of her storytelling I love is a plot mechanism she uses to simultaneously provide back story for her readers and Ceony on Mg. Thane’s life whilst building the relationship between the two. This is all done through an action-packed cat-and-mouse game between a powerful and dangerous Excisioner and Ceony. No long expositions here. There are other aspects that make this plot mechanism even more clever but that’s as far as I can go before dangling perilously close to the spoiler line (and that special reserved place).
Well executed clever & caring v.s. powerful & selfish:
We’ve seen a number of novels where clever courage lived out through sacrificial action beat brute force and power. I, for one, don’t ever tire of it, but the devil’s in the details and Ms. Holmberg executes the idea in a particularly artful manner. It never strikes one as too contrived or artificial. Alas, I’m once again limited in details of how she does this due to those pesky spoilers.
What did I find a little less appealing? There were times when Ceony went from seemingly cocky to quite contrite at the drop of a hat. Now few real people always act consistently but. on occasion, Ceony’s shifts seem a bit much This stark change may have been exacerbated by the formal and stiff language ( for a teen, even one from her time period) used by Ceony, contrasted with casual speech at other times. Neither the circumstances, nor those participating in the dialog, seemed to provide a reason for these changes. These, however, are nits within the whole context of the story. Overall, the dialog was natural, the action well-paced and the narrative beautifully done. This would be a fabulous 4th or 5th novel; it’s nothing short of astonishing in a debut novel.
As is my typical practice, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book. Amy McFadden did yeoman’s work through her narration. I particularly like her Emery with a mostly calm voice often infused with a hint of amusement. Her Lira’s syrupy condescension and self-satisfied humor as she is about to harm or kill is also brilliant. My only nit is that the tone of Ceony’s voice seems to waiver from posh Etonian English to a much more common flavor from time to time, again without circumstance seeming to warrant a change. I don’t believe Ms. McFadden is a native of the UK, so maintaining the dialect throughout was quite a feat. Anyway, the flips are rare and didn’t distract from a good narration of the book. I’m delighted she is also the narrator for The Glass Magician and anticipate her narrating any other additions to the series.
To sum up, the comedic touch is perfect, the action and danger well executed, the relationships are believable, nicely developed and drove the narrative, and the actual writing is spot on. Simply put, it was a fun read that was over all too quickly (even though this did save me from multiple sleep deprived nights). I also want to give a shout-out to a beautiful ending. Ms. Holmberg tied up this book nicely while setting up the end; all too often an initial book in a series simply stops without fully ending (more here) but she doesn’t fall into that trap. I’m seriously looking forward to The Glass Magician which is out November 2nd and which I’ve pre-ordered. I highly commend The Paper Magician for your reading pleasure.
Arguments for brilliance: OK, let’s get down to brass tacks. I make some pretty strong claims about the humor, of the sheer cleverness of the story and well executed theme of bright good guys beat strong bad guys. On what basis do I make these claims? Well, let’s take the humor, or rather joyful moments first. You’ve got to love her awkward introduction to Mg. Thane and more awkward moments during the first week of the apprenticeship. For example, her first impressions of being assigned as Mg. Thane’s apprenticeship and his abode: “I’ve been shot to hell.” as told to her mentor from school. As Ceony makes it clear, she has no desire to Fold and looks more than slightly askance at Thane’s sanity. She discovers that he is her benefactor who paid her tuition, however, so she’s quickly falling all over herself to thank him and embarrassed by they way she treated him. This is all done with humorous vignettes. Of course, she discovers much later that his empathy in this area was quite natural as he found himself pushed to be a Folder as well. Typical of their interchanges:
“The front you put onto you home is horrid,” she quipped. Mg. Aviosky passed Ceony a warning look as she stepped into the dining room. Mg. Thane mere replied, “Yes. Pleasant, isn’t it?”
So Mg. Thane simultaneously refuses to be goaded while he piques her ire. This dance between them is fun, but then he does something like create Fennel and throws her completely off. Who of didn’t smile when we read:
Ceony gaped in surprise. There, wagging its little paper tail, stood a dog.
What a brilliant move! It allays homesickness, wins the regard and loyalty of your apprentice, shows care and provides a palpable example of the benefits of Folding.
Now, however, we come to the genius bit. How brilliant is the whole taking of Emery’s heart and her having to go through it. Add to that the four chambers mapping to our light and dark sides of joyful moments, hopes, doubts and those dreadful things we think or do. In this plot device, Ceony comes to know his history and thereby his character (as do we). She sees more clearly her affection for him and grows to know him more quickly than she could in any other way. This will allow Ms. Holmberg to use this intimacy and knowledge without a lot of further development in future books in the series. But wait there’s more! It also allows him to know she knows much of his history
“It’s my heart, Ceony. Of course I would know what’s in it. Most of it, at least.
It allows Ceony to get to know her enemy Lira so that she can defeat her. Finally, it allows Emery and Ceony to worked together as a team in a way that normally couldn’t happen between magician and apprentice. That’s like 6 birds with one stone, albeit a very large stone. The heart scene reminded me a bit of Frodo and Sam slogging through the dangers of the Tower of Cirith Ungol and Mordor. It felt like it lasted forever (it’s 42% of the book), I was delighted when they finally got through it but there was no better way for the story to go. Now making that plot device, my friends, is sheer genius.
Finally, we see Ceony, top of her class, pushed to bond with Paper, the apparently lowliest of the materials. Opposing her is Lira, a powerful Excisionist who will kill to bring herself material (mainly blood) for magic. What defeats Lira?
- Knowledge – Ceony uses her fabulous memory (which can be a curse) and wits to learn Folding, Lira’s weaknesses, and options to maneuver out of danger
- Care – Had Ceony not cared, she would have stayed (relatively) safe at home and Emery would be lost to the world. Yes, some of this is enlightened self-interest but it is indicative of caring.
- Team-work – Emery was able to help Ceony at the end. She had to battle on her own, but Emery was able to equip her.
- Selflessness – If Ceony had not been willing to sacrifice herself, if need be, to defeat Lira, she would not have made it.
In all of this, everything she performs something likely or possible. Ms. Holmberg deftly moves the good to triumph in plausible ways.
So, there you have some relatively brief examples of humor, a brilliant plot device, and bright and caring good triumphing over strong and selfish evil. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.