One of the best things I’ve ever done is sign up for GoodReads Deals. Whenever an ebook of something I’ve put on my to-read list goes on sale, GoodReads will email me and let me know. It’s probably a little dangerous, given how many books I own (in physical and electronic form) that I haven’t read, but a number of the books I’ve read and loved this year were acquired for sale prices thanks to GoodReads, which is awesome.
That’s how I acquired Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Paper Magician books. Literally a day after I saw the first book on my suggested reads and added it to my list, GoodReads emailed me to let me know it was on sale. I discovered that I could purchase the whole series for a few dollars more and immediately downloaded all three books to my phone.
I’ve read the trilogy over the course of the last month and enjoyed it quite a bit.
The Paper Magician Trilogy follows Ceony Twill as she embarks on a post-graduation apprenticeship with Magician Emory Thane, a paper magician (known in-verse as a Folder). Her heart is set on becoming a metal magician (Smelter) but she’s assigned to folding because the art is dying and there are very few Folders left. When she arrives at Magician Thane’s cottage to learn the art of paper magic, she’s heartbroken — once she bonds to paper, she’ll never be able to bespell any other material.
But, as in every series involving magic, hijinks ensue. Ceony finds herself caught up in a dangerous web of criminal magicians — known as Excisioners — whose dark magic bonds them to human flesh. Through the course of her apprenticeship, she learns valuable lessons about her own magic, as well as the magic of others, and becomes deeply involved with Magician Thane as more than just her tutor.
It’s really obvious why this book came up on my recommended reads. I love young adult fantasy, particularly when the main character is a strong-willed, independent young girl who discovers she has powers beyond her comprehension. Ceony Twill is feisty as hell and determined to do what she wants, even when it puts her in serious danger. She defies anyone and everyone, including her magic tutor and the head of the apprentice program, in every single book. She has successes, but she also suffers incredible losses for which she blames herself. She’s very human. I enjoyed reading about her (mis)adventures.
I think the world Holmberg creates in this trilogy is well-constructed, though now that I’ve finished, it isn’t as deep as I’d like it to be. Magic exists in the regular world and is accessible to basically everyone, though not everyone has or pursues magic. Some people seem to be prevented from studying magic because they do not have the funds to do so; others, it would seem, just aren’t interested. But then there are people who are interested in magic insofar as they can weaponize it.
Why? Is it based on class? Race? Socialization? Location? Nothing in Holmberg’s writing seems to suggest why some pursue magic and others don’t (other than Ceony, who was nearly prevented from pursuing magic for lack of money, though that issue is solved for her). There are characters who learn magic in school and others who become magicians later in life, as adults. I’m very curious about the history of this world, how magic fits into it. Has magic always been around? Why doesn’t everyone practice, if it’s something that’s supposedly so easy to get into? What am I missing?
Simultaneously, this series is a fast read that doesn’t force the reader to think too hard about how its world exists or how it functions. As I read, I didn’t find any gaping holes in Holmberg’s plot. Each book flew by and I was interested enough to read the next. I didn’t feel, at the end of the third and final book, that I needed to read more or that there should be additional books written in-verse. I was pretty content. My questions came later, when I sat down to write this review.
My only objection, honestly, is that the series turned out to be heavily focused on the romantic relationship between Ceony and her tutor, Emory. The summary of the first book could have told me that: “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.” But it still rubbed me the wrong way to see the relationship between Ceony and Emory take on a romantic turn so early in the series and then remain a focal point through the rest.
I’m a big fan of unresolved sexual tension. In this case, I probably could have done without any kind of romantic plot, especially given that Emory is Ceony’s teacher. I felt uncomfortable with it the entire time I was reading, not because of age difference, but because he’s in a position of power over her. There’s never any indication that Emory is taking advantage of Ceony or forcing her into anything, but it still felt incredibly weird.
If the romantic plot had been a subplot, however, I think I could have dealt with that. I probably could have even gotten really into it, had it been stretched out longer. The pay-off felt like it happened too soon, especially since there wasn’t a lot of build up. When Ceony realizes she’s in love with Emory, at the end of the first book, it feels like Holmberg said, “oh, this is inevitable, here we go” and didn’t bother trying to make the moment flow from any kind of mounting tension. It didn’t feel natural or necessary to the overall plot of the books, and Ceony’s realization kind of came out of left field.
I think, for a series I added to my to-read list on a whim based on a quick perusal of the summary, that it was enjoyable. I don’t regret purchasing or reading it. I just wish there had been more, because Ceony felt so real and purposeful, but the romantic plot didn’t do her any kind of justice.
(There was also some weird, heteronormative bullshit about opposite-sex tutor/apprentice relationships being split up because of “scandals”, a subplot that took place mostly in the third book. It immediately made me wonder about LGBT magicians and their apprentices. Surely, there must be at least some?)
Overall, this series gave me three books to contribute toward my 2016 reading goal that were quick, easy reads. I rated each book 3/5 stars on GoodReads and stand pretty firmly by that rating for the series as a whole.
Overall rating: ★★★☆☆
Recommended for: Young adult fantasy/romance fans who enjoy quick, easy reads