Book Review: “The Paper Magician” by Charlie N. Holmberg

December 31, 2017

Just imagine, I discovered this book because my car wasn’t working properly. In the middle of a long trip, my beater Volkswagen started acting up. I pulled into a truck stop to let it rest, and while browsing the store’s audiobook rack, I noticed this title and was intrigued. Now, after listening to Amy McFadden’s performance of this book, I want to read more like it.

The story is set in the early years of the 20th century, in a version of England that has magicians. They train at a special school and are regulated by a governing cabinet. Each magician specializes in using one, and only one, man-made material. Some are into rubber, glass, plastic, or metal. There are some evil magicians, known as excisioners, who have figured out a way to use human blood. But when it comes time for ambitious young Ceony Twill to apprentice under a master magician, binding her power to paper is the furthest thing from her dreams. Folders, as magicians specializing in paper are known, are necessary for the balance of things, but who really wants to be one? Not Ceony.

So maybe you will understand why Ceony starts off as a slightly unsympathetic character. She is, to put it nicely, disappointed at first to be apprenticed to a folder named Emery Thane and bound forever to the power of paper. She is a little snotty about it, to tell the truth. But then she learns Thane was the anonymous donor who made it possible for her to study magic when the scholarship first promised to her fell through. She starts to appreciate his kind gestures and his eccentric but catchy method of instruction. She starts to learn how magic can breathe life into origami creatures, how folded paper can be used to tell fortunes, and how a story read with enough charisma can conjure up life-like illusions.

It’s just starting to look like things might work out when an excisioner blasts her way into Thane’s house, reaches into his chest by magic, and pulls out his still-beating heart. Ceony’s quick thinking provides the paper magician with a temporary paper heart, but his life hangs by a thread while she chases the dark magician, who happens to be Thane’s ex-wife. I don’t have room to explain how it happens, but Ceony ends up inside Thane’s heart, racing to find a way out in time to save him while encountering his happiest, most hopeful, darkest, and most discouraging memories, all while trying to find a way to defeat an enemy whose very touch is deadly.

To succeed, Ceony needs to find a way to communicate with the man whose heart she is trapped in. She thinks this is so he can teach her the magic she needs to save him. But maybe it’s so both their hearts can heal.

This is the first book in the Paper Magician series by an up-and-coming young author from Idaho who, you may be surprised to learn, is a woman. I stopped being surprised by an author’s gender when I saw a photo of China Miéville. Though at times Holmberg fumbles her syntax, with a good editor I think she will go far. This series continues to follow Ceony Twill’s apprenticeship with titles The Glass Magician, The Master Magician, and The Plastic Magician. Other Holmberg titles include Followed by Frost and Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet.

Interested? Buy a copy here.