Ms. Holmberg baked into her story intriguing characters, even the least lovable among them evokes some empathy (despite some serious nastiness). Her world is rich with smells, sound and myth come alive. Her story arcs in sometimes surprising ways and enters dark corners but never artificially or without purpose. I devoured this delectable treat in a couple of days and wish to immediately jump back into Raea. I cannot recommend it enough.
Imagine taking a Greek tragedy (and the related pantheon of gods), merge into it the story of the Fall and Original Sin and twirl in a mixture of fairy tales; never mind being able to “bake in inspiration”. That’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. It’s one thing to have a brilliant premise, it’s another to execute that well. Ms. Holmberg delivers in spades. She takes us along Maire’s painful journey of discovery of her own story. It’s a challenging world into which she has fallen, much like medieval Europe, full of might-makes-right and enslavement, as well as love, hope, and friendship. Maire’s “owner” is clearly not quite right. Not only is he devoid of a moral compass, he’s even devoid of common sense. So, he looks to the world around him to give him some clue of how to be in it. Given that sends him mixed messages, he’s not quite sure what that to do. As abusive and disgusting as he can be, he’s also an intriguing character of conflicting and foreign makeup. He is not only not normal, but he is “other”. He is not of this world. So even while you despise him, there is some empathy towards his plight. It’s a little like despising a snake that bites you. He cannot be other than he is. He cannot reflect and grow into something more even as he does learn to “fake it” better. He is limited by his very nature in an even more profound way than humans are.
Maire’s antagonist is also a bit of an entrepreneur; his business deals bring us into the world of fairy tales. Charlie Holmberg weaves these tales within the overall story in clever ways with just enough of a twist to make them new. While this is a fun sideline from the main thrust of the narrative, it’s integrated well and certainly adds to the overall enjoyment of the story. While no individual element of this world is completely new, Charlie Holmberg combines them in intriguing and innovative ways.
The characters are well developed; these are primarily Maire and Allemas, but also Arrice, Franc and Fyel. The relationships are complicated. Arrice and Franc essentially adopt Maire even though she’s appears to be a young woman when they meet her. Fyel is the ultimate tightlipped mystery man who appears to be connected with Maire and on her side, but for some reason doesn’t directly help her. Maire and Allemas have an often bizarre, disturbing and ever-changing relationship. At times, Allemas seems to treat her as property while at others he evinces a more intimate connection.
In terms of her writing style, I love how the dialogue matches the characters so well, especially for Allemas. Even his speech patterns are bizarre. Because Fyel feels he must hold his cards close to the vest, his halting attempts to communicate with Maire are a study in frustration. Arrice’s speech brings forth her loving and nurturing nature as Cleric Tuck’s conveys his competence and care. In other words, there’s a great fit between the manner of communicating and the characters themselves.
Like most journeys, the path on which Magic bitter, Magic Sweet takes you has many unknowns and a number of surprises; the journey takes you along in a different manner than you might think and leaves you at a slightly different place than you anticipated. I think the magic of this story is how she melds these disparate elements of myth, magic, and misdeed. While it’s a time of worn phrase, this is a novel where the whole is greater than its parts. At least for me, this journey is well worth the effort; it is enlightening and full of points that inspire reflection. I highly encourage you to take the journey as well.
Kate Rudd narrates the audiobook. She has fast become one of my favorite narrators and this book is indicative of why. Her flavor for each character is spot on, her pacing beautifully reflects the book and the ability to understand her, even in the midst of emotionally charged sections, is lovely. I think I last heard her in Rysa Walker’s Chronicles File series. It was interesting to note that she definitely has a go-to competent-caring-male voice she used there as well as in this book. Overall, I love her performance which mixes just the right emotional energy while maintaining clear enunciation.
*** SPOILER ALERT for Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet & The Paper Magician series ***
I saw a number of reviews that suggest this book is quite the surprise coming from Charlie Holmberg. They suggest that it’s so much darker, with abusive behavior to a number of people but especially to the heroine, that this is just out of place and too dark for what they expected from Ms. Holmberg. Well, let’s think about the Paper Magician series. There is a whole group of magicians whose material is blood; they are willing to do things to people to get that blood that are pretty nasty. You’ve got people that are willing to go after a young lady and kill her. You’ve got a magician willing to literally rip the heart out of a body with the person alive. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff going on in the Paper Magician. I’m not sure enslavement and physical abuse of women are much more beyond the pale than these. Moreover, this is set in a sort of medieval world where, unfortunately, that kind of behavior was prevalent. The idea of owning another person is not new to Ms. Holmberg’s book. So it may be a slight change of tone, which an author is more than within her rights to do, but I don’t see this as a huge order of magnitude leap from her previous work.
Much more interesting is this idea of one’s own creation being the very thing that causes you this kind of pain. She is Frankenstein to her monster, Allemas. She brilliantly merges a Greek tragedy with that of original sin. Here we have Maere overstepping her mandate to create worlds by wanting to be God through mimicking God’s ability to create a soul. This takes on the biblical idea of being image bearers of God where we’re called to glorify him through our reflected capabilities but twists that by desiring to be God himself. It is so well done here when she tried to push beyond that boundary as she creates this warped creature. I love the grace that’s given to her, there are consequences to the action but that ultimately, she is allowed to, at least temporarily, take on a mortal mantle and procreate in a more mundane manner with a hint of then moving back into the celestial row.
Going back to the original problem of the evil that is done; let’s look at the claim that physical abuse of a woman is beyond the pale of what they would expect from Charlie Holmberg. Let’s be clear that physical abuse is horrific. No woman should have to go through what Maire does. It is, however, absolutely central to the story. It is like a Hitchcock film where our sins come back to haunt us but in a much more intense manner than deserved; it also harkens back to Greek tragedy. Dr. Frankenstein, and those close to him, paid a horrific price for his arrogance in creating the monster (whose horrific nature was at least magnified by our lack of acceptance of him). It seems to me that Ms. Holmberg’s use of this abuse is critical to the story and is portrayed on a reasonable scale and in line with what she’s done previously. While a parent may want to be warned at the ensuing horrors before allowing their child to read this, it strikes me as a bit disingenuous of us to be shocked. The idea that an author can’t ramp up the intensity of conflict in a new novel series is a little funny to me. Even thinking about the Harry Potter series, we see a starkly dark book by book 7; it darkened over time as the subjects matured. This is a whole new series unrelated to The Paper Magician series whose protagonist is a full woman (it turns out that shes centuries old), not a teen. So I would think that if we dislike the book, it should be because the writing isn’t that good, the storyline fails to satisfy or the characters are wooden but not because it’s different than what went before it. And as you can see from my review above, I think it does well on all of those fronts.