Continuing the theme of Back to School, this week’s review is for Charlie N. Holmberg’s debut novel The Paper Magician. The new twist on magic-users caught my attention (every magician specializes in one man-made material: metal, glass, paper, plastic, etc.,) so I picked it up after only a brief look at the description: top-in-her-magic-class Ceony is heartbroken when she graduates and is assigned to be the apprentice of a paper magician, forever crushing all her dreams of working with metal. I’ll admit I thought this was going to be mostly a book about leaving childhood behind, learning to appreciate books and the beauty of origami, making new friends, and eventually finding out that the real magic was inside her all along. Standard coming-of-age young-adult stuff.
Ha, no. Ceony does learn a lot about origami and other techniques used by Folders (paper magicians); she also faces scenes of massacres, betrayal, mistakes with horrific consequences, and for a good part of the book she has to wade ankle-deep through blood while trying to escape a magician who works with a material very very far removed from paper. This is a wonderfully dark little book. Clever, definitely, but also disturbingly violent.
Materials magic can only be performed through manmade materials, of course, but someone many, many years ago concluded that because humans begot humans, people were also manmade, and thus the dark arts began. Now, turn to page one twenty-six in your text–
I loved the anime Read or Die (the movie, although the series was almost as good), with its paper-wielding heroine. Holmberg plays with a lot of the same elements here, like using paper as a projectile weapon, or origami animals that can walk and fly and follow orders. The ways paper can be manipulated by magic is pushed a lot farther in this book. For example Emory Thane, Ceony’s teacher, shows her the basics on how a Folder can cast an illusion, but it can only be of something written down on paper and then read aloud. Paper can be made waterproof (briefly), cold (think of paper snowflakes), and can even be made into an entire ambulatory skeleton, as long as all the joints are linked together properly. And of course, none of this will work unless the folds are all lined up right. The author has a lot of fondness for papercraft, and that comes through in all of the whimsical designs in the first few chapters.
Ceony herself is unbelievably snotty in the first chapter, but that’s understandable considering she’s a nineteen-year-old who until now has dreamed of becoming a Smelter (metal magician): crafting magical jewelry and enspelled bullets that always hit their mark. To her, a Folder is a magician destined to spend their life filing ledges, or sending letters in envelopes that open themselves upon delivery. She’s furious about being drafted into the Folding world, she thinks her new teacher must be a sad lunatic, and she’s grimly determined to stick it through anyway, since it’s Paper now or nothing. The somewhat eccentric Emery wins her over, starting with something he impulsively makes in secret in a single night, a gift for a homesick teenager apprenticed to a man who’s allergic to pets. The gradual revelation of all the lovely, gentle things that paper magic can do is so appealing, and Ceony’s growing feelings for Mg. Thane progresses just as gradually, without hitting the reader over the head with it.
Then things get dark, fast. We have just a few mild hints about Mg. Thane’s secret past, right before the main story literally explodes into existence. After that Ceony is on her own, using folded paper against the Excisioner, a magician who shapes flesh, and uses blood as a weapon. If a movie were made out of this book the combination would be visually jarring: on one hand you have the beautiful art of papercraft, and on the other hand you have everything that can happen when bodies are pulled open by magic. Ceony staggers through almost two thirds of the book drenched in blood, something right out of a nightmare. This isn’t the usual teenage-girl-learns-to-have-confidence-in-herself kind of story; Ceony’s in real peril, doing battle in probably the strangest battlefield I’ve seen, against a foe who can kill her with a touch.
The story kept me interested, but I did notice the occasional problem with pacing. Ceony has some domestic skills – before receiving an anonymous scholarship to study magic her fall-back plan was culinary school – and it definitely goes to show the kind of capable young woman she is. But displaying that could have been spaced out a little bit; the story is dragged to a screeching halt a couple of times while Ceony cleans house or cooks a succession of meals. And I had some difficulty grasping the time period for the book. I’m thinking…Victorian? Maybe? No cars, and the telegraph is still a thing, but the style of language was out of place for Victorian, as was the idea of a young unmarried woman living alone with a slightly older unmarried man. It’s very obviously set in a fantasy-version of London, but it felt like it kept swinging back and forth between an actual Victorian-era and a kind of timeless fantasy-era, when maybe it could have picked one, or at least explained the setting in a little more detail.
Those are minor quibbles though. This is an excellent first book; it’s actually better than some of the established authors I’ve read. Charlie Holmberg releases her second book (yes, Charlie’s female, her bio says she’s got three sisters with boy’s names too) in the series in November. Seeing the magic she invented with paper was a lot of fun, and the art of the Excisioner was fascinatingly creepy, so I’m curious to see what she does with glass.