Book Review: The Paper Magician

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Book: The Paper Magician
Series: The Paper Magician series, Book 1
Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Genres: neo-Victorian, steampunk, adventure, fantasy, Gothic horror

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.
From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.”

Notes of Interest:

This book interested me because of its genre elements. It looked and sounded like something steampunkish in setting, but with plot emphasis on magic. It ended up being more neo-Victorian than steampunk, but it does have steampunk elements. To me, the differences are that neo-Victorian is more about an alternate history for the Victorian time period, while steampunk focuses on science fiction from a historical perspective. They are often interwoven, but fantasy prioritizes magic, whereas science fiction priorities machines. This book is the former. But the magic takes place within an scientifically invented magical system. For example, the paper glider is engineered. The excisioner must know anatomy like a doctor. Plastics, rubber, and glass are separate magics, too. And when I realized the magic of this world was set up based on man-made elements, that in itself was the selling point for me. I think it’s a unique, refreshing concept to say magic comes only from man-made items, rather than natural elements. So, it’s an unusual concept to think that paper or human tissue might contain magic because man creates them, but earth, water, air, and fire do not because man has no influence there.

What could have made it better for me:

I’m pleased to say this is one of those books I feel is perfect just the way it is. There were no technical distractions pulling me out of the story. The characters are well-developed as you get to know them. The plot is an easy-to-follow mix of alternate history, ingenuity, magic and fantasy, romance, and horror, all of which I love.

What I liked about it:

I’ve already mentioned its unique use of man-made items for the foundation of magic as its main selling point for me. Though this book focused on only two types of magic — paper and excisioner — I’m very interested to see how other magics are handled. And that alone is enough to make me want to delve into book two, never mind the characters or plots. Paper magic is basically origami combined with magic skills learned at a college. Excisioner magic is anatomical necromancy. So, I imagine the other magics mentioned could involve manipulation of machinery and technology.

The imaginative details on how paper folding could be used in unexpected ways was pleasantly surprising. The author was right to choose it as a medium that the main character, Ceony, would underestimate, but then gradually become fascinated with and learn to appreciate its potential the more she masters it. So we see her grow in knowledge and skills as a magician as she advances in her craft. And it isn’t a boring progression with burdensome details, like many books that detail the magics in their worlds, because of the creative ways in which the spells are learned and used.

Ceony’s apprenticeship intertwines with Mg. Thane’s background and current troubles to provide the challenges to employ what she learned in order to save her teacher and prevent magic from being misused for harm.

Her journey through Mg. Thane’s heart has a lot of symbolic, nostalgic themes, but by contrast also delves into a surreal and horror-filled scope of a hunt for a magician who seeks to control and harm other people. So, while the story starts with a bit of a Mary Poppins feel, it ends up feeling more like something akin to Messrs Jekyll and Hyde.

The relationship between Ceony and Mg. Thane also hints of Jane Austin a bit, though their characters are revealed to the reader, and each other, through learning to appreciate someone based on what you learn about them, rather than over a course of frequent interaction. I’m sure the second book picks up more on the interaction of the relationship. But “listening” to someone’s heart to understand what makes him tick is just as important as “speaking” to it. I guess you could say Mg. Thane’s heart is the figurative “clockwork” aspect of this story, and Ceony must try to figure out what happened to it before she can save it or fix it.

Recommendation:

If you enjoy the aforementioned genres, I think you’ll like this book. It was a quick, clean read with a lot of potential for branching out in the series. I look forward to reading the second book.

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