Do I only recommend novels which are perfect in every way? No. If that were my rule, I would never have managed to recommend over a hundred books on Fantasy Reads. My choice this week – `The Paper Magician’ by Charlie N. Holmberg – has plenty of flaws but I was able to forgive most of them. This novel, which came out in 2014, is the first in `The Paper Magician Trilogy. The second and third volumes, `The Glass Magician’ and `The Master Magician’, have already been published. All three are available in paperback (with very stylish covers) or as ebooks.
`The Paper Magician’ is set in a version of Edwardian England (though not a version most English people will recognize). Ceony Twill is a girl from a poor family who aspires to be a magician. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor, she is able to attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, where she studies the theory of enchanting various types of manmade materials. When Ceony graduates top of her class, she looks forward to becoming an apprentice Smelter – a magician who deals with metals. Then she is informed that England is short of Folders – magicians who work with paper. So Ceony is to be apprenticed to Emery Thane, a Paper Magician who lives on the outskirts of London. Ceony regards Folding as outdated and useless but once she is formally `bonded’ to paper, there is no turning back.
Ceony is unhappy in her new home and uncertain what to make of her eccentric Master and his mysterious disappearances. She only warms to the Paper Magician after she discovers an unexpected link between them and he creates an animated paper dog to replace the pet she was forced to leave behind. Ceony soon becomes interested in the art of Folding since it can do many more things than she imagined, such as foretelling the future. A spell suggests that a woman called Lira will be coming back into Emery Thane’s life. When she does, the consequences are horrific because Lira is an Excisionist – someone who practises `the forbidden magic that uses human flesh as a conduit’. Ceony is forced to use her new found skills to save her Master and must undertake a perilous journey through the heart of a magician.
Holmberg clearly has a strong visual imagination but she (this particular Charlie is female) is not an elegant writer. In fact `The Paper Magician’ is in dire need of a sterner editor who might have sorted out some of the misused words and tenses. Historical and geographical research aren’t Holmberg’s strong points either, so I’m not sure why she chose to set this novel in a very specific time and place. Nearly everything about the society in which Ceony lives seems more American than English – particularly the school system. The costumes her characters wear aren’t consistently Edwardian and Big Ben is about the only recognizable London landmark (though Holmberg has some very strange ideas about what goes on in Parliament Square). I do hope that all of this is deliberate but I have a sneaking fear that it isn’t. Quite early on, I decided that the only way I could enjoy `The Paper Magician’ was to forget everything I know about Edwardian England and regard this novel as set in an entirely invented Steampunk-style world.
If you can do the same, there are pleasures on offer. Emery Thane’s cottage is one of the most charming magician’s homes in Fantasy fiction. Behind the illusion of a gloomy mansion is a garden full of red, violet and yellow paper tulips which close their petals when a cloud obscures the sun. Inside, a paper skeleton serves as a butler, hundreds of paper birds dangle from the dining room ceiling and everywhere there are piles of brightly coloured paper for using in spells. The `Folding’ magic in this book is brilliantly worked out. Emery tells his apprentice that it requires ` a keen eye and deft hands’. As someone with no physical dexterity whatever, origami (the Japanese art of folding paper into complex shapes) has always seemed magical to me. Holmberg takes it a step further and has her Paper Magicians fold paper to create birds that can act as messengers and spies, snowflakes to keep things cool, paper-chains that can bind or protect, a glider that can carry a person, and a loyal canine companion who can be packed away until needed. This form of magic is convincing because it has strict rules and limitations. Anything written on paper can be brought to life but paper is vulnerable to water and fire. Throughout the trilogy, Holmberg comes up with ever more inventive ways to use paper, and other man-made materials such as glass and rubber, to create wonders and fight evil.
In my last post (on Naomi Novik’s `Uprooted’), I wrote that `a book which appears for the first few chapters to be about a young woman’s magical and romantic education, suddenly develops into a violent and disturbing story.’ Exactly the same words can be used about `The Paper Magician’. Until a third of the way through, the book is a whimsical love story about two people who are refreshingly different from the intense couples found in most Paranormal or Gothic Romances. Emery Thane may have dark hair and a tragic past but he’s no Mr Rochester. He’s gentle, good-humoured, allergic to animal-hair and fond of racing paper frogs against each other. Orange-haired Ceony is an ambitious loner who starts the book in a mighty sulk and spends her spare time snooping on Emery and cooking comfort food. Just as this pair are getting to know and like each other, the plot takes a dark turn with the sudden introduction of heart-stealing blood magicians. `The Paper Magician’ becomes a race-against-time thriller with some very gory scenes.
Personally, I wish that Holmberg had involved her trio of leading characters – Emery, Ceony and Fennel, the cute paper dog – in a gentler, more frivolous adventure. It would have been a better fit with the cheery tone of the early chapters. However, I must praise Holmberg for doing something really different with the folktale motif of the search for the magician’s heart. Magicians traditionally store their power in detachable hearts. In this story, Ceony has to find the way to a man’s heart in an alarmingly literal way. In the four chambers of Emery’s heart she sees his joys, sorrows, hopes and fears, and can only progress when she understands them. She’s partly able to do this because she has her own guilty secrets and forlorn hopes. It is easy to pick holes in the logic of this part of the plot but writing Fantasy gives Holmberg the freedom to explore character in ways that more realistic novels can’t. I finished the book wanting to know what happened next to Ceony and Emery. `The Paper Magician’ won’t please everyone but it is worth reading for the Folding magic alone. Until next time….