The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, has a nicely original premise and a unique heroic quest, but the overall impact is marred by a trite romance, a somewhat flat main character, and a sense that it all goes on a bit long.
In this world, magic users “bond” to a particular material — rubber, metal, plastic — and work with that material (and only that material) the rest of their lives. Ceony Twill has just graduated from magic college (thanks to an anonymous sponsor) and been assigned, much to her dismay, to become a “Folder” — one who specializes in paper magic. Apprenticed to full magician Emery Thane, she is just starting to learn that maybe paper magic isn’t as dull/bad as she feared, when Thane is suddenly attacked and left for dead, his heart stolen from him by an Excisioner — a blood magician. Ceony finds herself having to journey through Thane’s heart (literally) before she can confront the Excisioner Lira and try to save her teacher.
As mentioned, I really liked Holmberg’s premise here. While “materials magic” is not a particularly unique idea, I’ve never seen it applied to paper or to the art of folding, and I enjoyed both its originality and the way it was presented here. The journey through Thane’s heart was also a nice touch — one of my favorite aspects of fantasy is how metaphor can become reality and here you have the classic “she stole my heart” and “broken heart” concepts turned literal. The journey through the heart is really a journey through various memories from Thane’s past, as well as aspects of his personality. For the most part this was nicely handled, but it did feel a bit overlong and had a few predictable or trite moments.
That also unfortunately extended to what is really the driving force of the novel, which is Ceony’s falling in love with Emery. A, it was predictable. B, it was instalove, my least favorite kind. C, it flattened Ceony’s character, making her more reactive and making her do all this because she’s in love rather than for something that was already interior to her, already part of her. And really, is it necessary to have a male-female couple focus on a love relationship? Couldn’t she just have tried to save her teacher, or her friend, or just have a sense of adventure?
Beyond that, the world creation is a bit thin, but I wouldn’t call it a flaw; it’s more a result of the plot, which takes Ceony into Thane’s heart relatively quickly and then has her questing through it for nearly the entire rest of the novel. I assume later books in the series will show us more of this world — this version of England, how the other materials magicians work, etc.
In the end, while The Paper Magician began with an intriguing premise, and sends us on a unique journey, it ended up only mildly entertaining, and a bit annoying with the just-add-water “love.”
The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
I liked this book a bit more than Bill did, finding the love story enjoyable (even though I agree that it’s trite). My bigger problem with the book was how unattractive a character Ceony was until she fell in love, and the seemingly complete transformation she underwent with the blossoming of that emotion. I thoroughly enjoyed all the manifestations of paper magic, which are what really made the book sing for me — and made me read on to the next novel in the series, and to buy the third after that.