Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Every now and then I come across a book with such an intriguing premise that I have to purchase it almost without reading. The Paper Magician, the first book in Charlie N. Holmberg’s trilogy of the same name is such book. I even read the sample, and though it made me raise my eyebrows a couple of times, I purchased it anyway.

I have no excuses.

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

I love fantasies set in a world identical to ours with changes stemming from the fantasy system of the book, be it modern urban fantasy or historical. There is special charm to historical fantasy of this kind. My absolute favourite is Gail Carriger whose detailed knowledge of the customs and manners of Victorian England make the past come alive in her historical series. And she’s so good at weaving the fantasy elements in, that I don’t always question their reality.

The Paper Magician has nothing of that. The author hasn’t made the slightest attempt to learn about the era she’s set her book in—1901, to be exact. From the first chapter on, the lack of historical details and the abundance of modern manners made me assume the book was set in maybe 1960s with some historical quirks that I took to stem from the fantasy elements. Once the real era was revealed, the historical inaccuracies became a constant irritation that repeatedly pushed me out of the narrative.

If the chosen fantasy system is sound, and the differences to the actual historical era can be explained as a result of that fantasy system, everything is fine, even if the differences are considerable. Spotting the differences becomes fun, even. But that requires that the author has a working knowledge of the time before she starts making the changes.

The turn of the century was the end of Victorian era of strict moral code and exact manners. Class distinctions were clear, and a person of means was expected to live in a manner of their class, with servants. Upper class women didn’t work, nor did they socialise with the opposite sex unsupervised. Social mobility was almost unheard of. But it was also an era of great technical innovations and the nascent suffragette movement.

The Paper Magician disregarded all that. We have a society where women—at least women magicians—are equal to men. They wear their hair down and use makeup and trousers if they want. They can marry and divorce with a sign of a paper. The hero, apparently a wealthy man, lives alone in a large house without any servants, so he cooks, cleans and does his washing himself. He can share the house with a female apprentice without anyone so much as raising a brow. The heroine is a poor working class girl who nonetheless has gone to the same school as the hero as if mixed schools existed, or were available for poor—a school that resembles remarkably an American high school even though they’re supposedly in London. Their manners with each other are free, with no respect given or expected. She cooks him pasta and rice, as if those were available at the time, and washes his clothes in her spare time, as if it weren’t a whole day operation to do the washing at that time. There is electricity in some houses, but no gas light, as the alternative to electric light is always candles. Every house has its personal telegraph machine. Is it a wonder I thought the book was set in 1960s with some historical quirks?

On top of that came the Americanisms. The heroine describes her hair to be the colour of yams, uses inches and centimetres interchangeably, puts mayonnaise to her cucumber sandwiches, and uses the expression ‘rocks like a rodeo horse’, to mention just a few. Added to that was the author’s weird attitude to religion, which she probably thought was ‘European’. First Ceony wonders why Emery doesn’t say grace before dinner, and later reflects that she doesn’t really belive in God, and calls the Church of England a sect—which it could be in her world, only it isn’t explained why.

Despite the constant irritation the weird world caused, I read the whole book. It wasn’t very long, and it was sadly uneven, with no proper plot development. During the first half of the book, Ceony, the heroine, learns the ropes of being a paper magician. Much of this is narrated as if from the outside—told, not shown. There was some attempt at plot development when Emery, the master magician, goes to a mysterious errand, but before anything can be built on it, there is a plot twist in form of a surprise attack by a person mentioned once, with a forbidden magic that hadn’t really been introduced yet. The attack incapacitates Emery and leaves Ceony the sole agent for the rest of the book.

The second half is one long scene where Ceony saves the day. However, it’s also a sort of dream sequence, as it’s a journey to Emery’s past, and to his hopes and fears. As is quite typical in these sorts of books, Ceony concquers the foe by being more powerful and capable in magic than her training or skills allows. And then the book ends.

I didn’t like Ceony much in the beginning. She was rude and assumed it was her right to snoop. She improved towards the end though. Emery was a distant figure throughout the first half of the book, and then became a proper character during the second half, which was ironic, considering that he wasn’t even present in person.

All in all, the book had great flaws, and had an undeveloped, uneven plot. But as I managed to read it to the end and be moderately entertained, I gave it three stars. However, I have no intention to continue with the series. That I’d decided already before reading the sample chapter of the next book, where Ceony’s sister goes on a date. My blood pressure couldn’t handle that.

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