Charlie Holmberg is a masterful literary tight-rope walker; she has written that fine line between fierce vs. frenetic, endearing vs. cloying, inventive vs. a show-off and clear headed vs. cold-hearted. The main protagonist is an almost ideal character in that she doesn’t come off as a constructed character at all. She is clear-headed, except when it comes to her own safety. She is brilliant except for some moments of her own relationships. She is brave, physically and emotionally, but not (usually) brash. She is not perfect, thank goodness. She can be impatient. Her feisty temper can flare; it is all too easy to push her buttons. She is less self-focused than Katniss or Bella, more aware than Triss or Clary and less annoying than Hermione (at least at the beginning of the HP series). She has heart, grit, and talent. In short, the perfect protagonist (made better by not being perfect). I really like Emery as well, but he leans a little too much toward the perfect side; of course, this comes from the perspective of a guy who knows he doesn’t live up to anything like Magician Thane. Ms. Holmberg draws their relationship and the series to a delightful culmination in The Master Magician.
The genius of the series isn’t surprising twists and turns (although the first two books provide plenty of those), but rather the growth of Ceony from a recent graduate and early apprentice to a full magician and the growth of her relationship with Emery Thane. She grows in confidence without ever becoming flippant as she sees her capabilities used under pressure. She dances enchantingly between confidence and arrogance. When pushed to follow lessons that she mastered early in her apprenticeship, she holds her own: “If I did not feel confident in my knowledge of Folding, I would not be making the preparations for my magician’s test. No, I don’t believe I need a ledger.” Yet when she learns that she is to test under a new magician, she feels some slight panic: “She pressed a palm to her forehead. “I have more studying to do than I thought. I’m doomed. I . . . I need to get dressed.”
[Light spoilers below]
We have seen her care and concern for others, especially Emery, in her desire and willingness to risk her life for their safety. Her most telling moment of growth, however, is in her confrontation with her sister, Zina. After her sister attempted to humiliate Ceony in pubic: “I heard our parents talking, that’s what,” she said. “Criminy, Ceony, it’s like shagging the principal. Isn’t he a divorcé, too?” Scalding heat permeated Ceony’s skin, reddening her like a tomato,” and with many other pressing matters to manage, Ceony takes the time to track her down and not only talk to her, but listen as well: “I’m [Zine] sick of being second-rate, Ceony!” Zina said, loud enough to earn a few glances from passersby …. she continued. “Compared, overlooked. If one daughter can become a magician, then certainly another can do something equally great” As Ceony pulls out of her the desire to do art and pitch in to help, Zina responds: “I don’t want handouts.” “Then sell something and pay me back. Accept a little help from your family, Zina. I doubt you want to spend the rest of your life inside a saloon next to someone who manhandles women.” and finally cuts through more arguments with a hug. Ceony has grown beyond button-pushed reactions, beyond being goaded into a fight over Zina’s surface presentation and responds to her heart. Now that’s a kind of life-sustaining heroism we could all do well to model.
While there are a number of great lessons to pull from the series, these are not morality tales, but fun and intriguing reads. They’re relatively short (around 225 pages each) novels that are set in an alternate Edwardian England peopled with Magicians of various materials and other captivating characters with challenges and adventure lurking around every corner.
As is my wont, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book. Amy McFadden conveys the care and confidence of Emery, the pragmatism of Mg. Patrice Aviosky and the awkward infatuation of Bennet Cooper. Immersed within the spell of her voice, you can easily visualize Bennet’s shyness, puppy-dog look, and melancholic knowledge that he isn’t really making any headway with Ceony. Her male voices are great, she keeps consistent, perfect inflection within each character and always keeps the attention on the story, not her narration. Absolutely spot-on. If you like audiobooks, this is one you’ll want to get.
While this is a YA (historical fiction of the magical variety) novel, don’t let that stop you. It’s a great story for YA and above. I commend The Master Magician (and the entire Paper Magician series) to your reading (and listening pleasure).