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The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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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.
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Holmberg’s YA fantasy romance is in a number of ways creative, but at the same time, The Paper Magician is also incredibly trope-bound; the question one ought to ask, then, is whether Holmberg manages to do anything interesting with those tropes…

The Paper Magician feels very much like a post-Harry Potter phenomenon somehow, with its school for magic, its mysterious, secretive mentor figure who must be saved by our protagonist, the band of evil magicians with special spells only they can use, and – as in Order of the Phoenix – our reluctant, moody teenager. On the other hand, there are as many differences as similarities; the idea of bonding to one type of material, for instance, and the apprenticeship model of magic combined with a schooling model. It’s an interesting blend, which Holmberg makes all the more curious by throwing in a host of romance tropes; indeed, this is almost more of a romance novel than it is a fantasy, with the movement from resentment to adoration of Thane across the course of The Paper Magician hitting all the expected notes.

The first place Holmberg hits on something new is in her magic system; combining a kind of one-year theory course with an apprenticeship, with the added wrinkle of being able to affect only one (man-made) material, The Paper Magician is quite interesting in how it uses that magic. Indeed, the power of paper magic – of an unexpected kind of magical power – is very well handled, although little explained; it seems to be a sort of handwaving but a handwaving designed to display the various different forms of power that are possible. Indeed, some of the paper magic we see is quite beautiful, and Holmberg is very definitely able to exploit and subvert expectations in this area, partly through resisting the temptation to pin down her magic system too neatly in the Sanderson mode.

The problem comes with the plot and the characters. While The Paper Magician does a lot of interesting and new things to surround them, the core of the novel is basically a standard fantasy romance; Ceony is the standard teenage girl who comes to be impressed by and love her mentor despite an earlier disappointment with who she has been assigned. The plot revolves around her saving him from his ex-wife, who – with the forbidden “flesh-magic” of Excisionism – has literally stolen his heart; so Ceony has to traipse through Thane’s heart to save him. It’s an interesting conceit, especially in a romance novel, although not unproblematic; the mingling of magic and anatomical accuracy is quite brilliant.

What really saves the novel, though, isn’t its flashes of brilliance overlaying the dull old tropes; it’s Holmberg’s writing. The Paper Magician is elevated by beautiful readable, simple prose. It’s not simple in the manner of flat, dull, lifeless prose, but rather in its stylish, smooth, unadornedness; Holmberg writes neat, evocative, stylish prose that really flows and draws the reader on and into the book, bringing the old tropes a new lease on life. This is especially true in Holmberg’s willingness to shift her speed and pace to match the action; this marriage of pace and style to content is excellent, and something we tend to undervalue in fantasy.

The Paper Magician isn’t doing anything terribly new, and Holmberg’s debut has some serious bumps along the road and hangups, but it a definite marker of future good things.


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