The final book of Charlie N. Holmburg’s The Paper Magician trilogy opens with Ceony just weeks away from the end of her apprenticeship as a Paper Magician. Having to prepare for the Folder’s exam would be stressful enough even without the secret she’s keeping about being able to break her bond with Paper and work with other materials. She’s also having to deal with the (false) rumors about what’s been going on between her and Emory Thane, caused by the (very much true) growing affection and desire between her and her mentor. And then there’s the little matter of the escape of Saraj, an Excisioner notorious even among other Excisioners for being violent and unstable, and who just happens to have a grudge against Ceony and Mg. Thane.
The Paper Magician introduced the beautiful and sometimes terrifying world of materials magic. The Glass Magician was a straightforward magical adventure that showed us new aspects of the magic of glass and paper, many of them very, very violent. The Master Magician is a coming-of-age story. With magic. And romance. And occasional violence.
If you think Ceony might have learned a lesson about rushing into danger all by herself…well, she hasn’t. Ceony always has the best reasons – protecting her family by taking care of the problem once and for all without dragging anyone else into a possibly fatal situation – but I wanted to shake her after the umpteenth time she sets off to confront a dangerous and powerful Excisioner without backup. We’re talking about someone who can kill you with a touch, Ceony, and they also need to pull a beating heart out of someone in order to perform all the other horrible things they can do like turning teeth into projectile weapons and making a mist of blood explode. Do you think you could just once pay a little more mind when the people who deal with this sort of thing for a career tell you that trying to track down and recapture one of these rogue magicians on your own is a bad idea?
But Ceony never listens, repeatedly breaking her promise to “stay out of it”, and in a way you really can’t blame her. Ceony’s managed to face down two Excisioners on her own, beating both of them and living to tell the tale, and she’s not even a full magician yet. There aren’t many characters with that kind of experience who would be happy with the Victorian urge to keep an apprentice, a young female apprentice, on the sidelines for her own safety when her whole family may be a target. Her options are to either go it alone in secret or sit quietly and let the grownups handle this, and Ceony’s never been one to sit quietly for anything. And let’s not forget that she now has the ability to perform magic with a whole range of other materials, giving an edge over magicians who are bonded to just one.
With this, she could be ready for anything. Saraj might have had power over flesh and blood, but she had power over everything else.
It was established in the very first chapter of the first book that Ceony has a photographic memory and an ability to learn quickly, which explains how she’s able to learn so much about the different magical disciplines in such a short amount of time. Ceony has a whole room full of enchanted paper flowers and birds and animated maps and glowing paper stars decorating her room, all collected over the course of what sounds like a very fun two years learning to be a Folder, and that doesn’t even include all the things she’s made from other materials in secret.
Part of this series that appealed to me the most was seeing all the different spells the author could invent for each material, and Ceony gets to see or use most of them: mirrors for transportation or spying, bullets that never miss their target, fire that blooms from a spark exactly where you need it, even shoes where the rubber soles are spelled for speed. In one chapter Ceony collects together all of the items she would need in order to make a rapid switch between the different materials in the middle of a fight, and the very idea of putting together a charm necklace with a sample of each material as a charm made my crafting heart happy.
The story mirrors Ceony’s rapid changes to different types of magic by switching back and forth between the stresses of everyday life and the peril of a hunt for a rogue Magician. In her life as a student Ceony has to deal with having her apprenticeship transferred at the last minute to another magician (to avoid any accusations of favoritism, which works, because her new mentor doesn’t seem to like anybody, much less her), and a fractious younger sister who’s actually going to saloons, with men. And in the rest of her life she’s having to zip through mirrors and use fire to fend off insane magicians.
The author writes every conflict in rich detail, from the travels through a scratched mirror (very dangerous, like a trip through a nightmarish ice cavern with teeth), to a desperate battle with magicians using paper, fire, and blood. And Ceony holds her own in every case, including an incident in a saloon with paper magic being used in a very satisfying way that I hadn’t expected. And after spending the entire book waiting for someone to find out Ceony’s secret, when the villain finally does find out, there’s a perfect “Ohhh, now I get it” moment that shows the author has thought out and planned the rules of her magical world in even more detail than I’d thought.
I’ve read several reviews of The Master Magician, and if people had any compliant at all it was about one thing the story was missing: an epilogue. And I agree, everything about Ceony’s apprenticeship and her family and the hunt for the rogue magician and the possible romance with Emory Thane wrapped up very quickly (and very sweetly, especially the romance), but with a few things left unresolved. I think it’s a good sign for a book when the biggest complaint is that it should have had a few extra paragraphs. Or another chapter. Or possibly even another book with the same characters and the same world? Maybe? I won’t be greedy and ask for an entire new trilogy, not unless the author really really wants to.