Review: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

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Review: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

Charlie N. Holmberg – author of The Paper Magician series – is working with a new type of magic in her latest book Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (due out June 28). Instead of paper or metal or glass, the magician in this book works with food.

Maire is a magical baker who can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities. She can give someone a sense of love with a slice of cake, or a downtrodden worker new strength with a sugar cookie. She can even make baked goods do things they were never intended to do, like, say, making gingerbread strong enough to be used to build a house. Sounds like the makings for a whimsical, fun book, right?

Wrong.

Maire’s fanciful magic powers are just the backdrop for a book that’s almost relentlessly dark in places. The reader is quickly thrown into a story of Maire attempts to survive being kidnapped by marauders and sold to a lunatic, all while trying to recover her forgotten past. It’s also a story of love (lost and found), and little tidbits about what type of cake works the best for each kind of magic. The book is an intriguing mix of the cute and the dire, and none of my initial guesses about Maire’s origin ended up being right.

This isn’t the usual fairy tale story of discovery, where the main character grew up as an orphan, or suffered a head wound and can’t remember the last few years. Marie has no memories from before the last four years. Of anything. For all she knows, her life began as a twenty-something young woman standing on the side of a road with the kindly shop owner Arrice asking her if she’s okay.

Lost memories aside, she’s been incredibly lucky to wind up where she did. Arrice and her husband Franc have given her a loving home. She quickly discovered her magical skill with baking, no incantations required, just a strong focus while she’s cooking on how she wants the people eating her food to feel (being careful not to let her mind drift, since negative emotions can give her customers a nasty shock). She’s even caught the attention of young Cleric Tuck, a man she finds rather attractive, even if he can be just a tiny bit pushy about his religion.

Maire herself is a kind-hearted person, so happy to bring cheer to her fellow townspeople that she barely charges enough for her cookies and cakes to cover supplies, sometimes even giving them away to anyone she thinks needs a moment of happiness. She still has the occasional sense of something missing in her life, those years from before she can remember. And lately she’s gotten glimpses of a strange floating figure, a man all in white who seems to have wings…

Then marauders attack the town, killing many of the townfolk, raping several women, and then selling everyone left alive into slavery. And yes, it does happen that fast. The contrast between Maire’s idyllic life and becoming a slave is an effectively nasty shock.

Maire barely has time to register what’s happened to her when she’s sold to Allemas, a man who seems to know her, and who’s apparently been looking for her for a long time. He has some kind of magical abilities, and he recognizes her ability enough to find customers who’ll pay quite a lot for things like magical gingerbread.

Magic Bitter, Magic SweetHe’s also, and this is important, insane. Worms-in-the-head crazy and completely unpredictable. Maire’s attempts to escape reveal that he can be ruthless as well. There are things that happen in the course of this book that can’t be waved away with a magic spell or healing herbs. It makes those sections pulled from a children’s story feel extremely surreal, something that will stick in your head and probably occur to you the next time you read one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

As for the rest of the story…you know I can’t even go into the rest of the story without giving away the whole mystery. The real information about who Maire once was is hidden until very close to the end of the book. You can see hints in all of the chapter headings, but I can almost guarantee you won’t know what those are about until you finish the book and then go back and reread them. There’s something much bigger going on than Maire suspects, there are things that Allemas won’t tell or can’t say in clear sentences (remember, crazy). And then there’s Fyel, the ghostly figure in white who apparently knows her better than anyone else, and who obviously loves her, but who – in the way of all mysteriously knowledgable figures in fantasy stories – can’t help her directly and can’t tell her anything more than a few cryptic phrases.

Charlie Holmberg has created another fascinating world with its own brand of magic, wrapped around a very sweet (and often extremely strange) romance. One of the oddest parts is that the whole mystery boils down to one of the very simplest human motivations. And while you could argue that there’s a happily-ever-after to the story, it’s certainly not an ending that’s conventional, or one that dodges all (or even most) of the consequences of wanting something you’re not supposed to have.