Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Series: The Paper Magician Trilogy #1
Published: September 1, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
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.
The Paper Magician is a book with a standard enough premise, another "fantasy London, turn of the century, but magic!" novel, but a really fun magic system that sets it apart. Magicians bond to the first man-made material they work spells through, creating different guilds of magical craftsmen that make everything from bespelled fountains to un-dullable scissors.
Ceony Twill, an apprentice mage, dreams of being a Smelter and working through metal to create weapons and tools. Useful items. Instead, as the top student at Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, she’s assigned to a dying guild that no one else chose. She will be a Folder, working useless, decorative magic through origami and paper snowflakes. As someone who has been doing origami for more than 15 years, I can’t tell you how delightful I found Emery Thane and his animated flowers, cranes, and frogs. I would give anything to trade places with Ceony and have my own Fennel, the paper dog he makes for her as a welcoming gift.
Obviously the paper magic turns out to be more than pretty flowers, as Ceony learns a few months into her training when a mysterious woman breaks into the cottage and literally steals Thane’s heart via forbidden blood magic. This is about the point in the book where I asked what was going on with the pacing. To this point, the previous months had been rushed through in a few chapters, with Ceony coming to appreciate her new bond in a pretty short amount of time. The remaining hundred and fifty pages after Lira appears, however, cover two days and massivecharacter development.
See, since making her Fennel, Ceony’s falling pretty hard for Emery. Ngl, I also fall in love with men who give me puppies, so... Unable to bear her crush and mentor’s whole “bleeding to death without a heart on the kitchen floor” thing, she creates a temporary paper replacement and sets off after Lira. And that’s where things kind of go off the rails.
I want to be clear, I loved this book until Ceony entered Emery’s heart. It reminded me of a lot of my favorite YAs from the 90s with a magic system that resonated with me personally. Ceony’s driven, intelligent, and snarky with a mysterious backstory. Emery’s that frazzled and slightly spacey magical genius, in the vain of Numair and Mairelon. I loved the book after the heart. Unfortunately, the largest part of the book takes place, literally, on a tour of the inside of Thane’s heart.
Each of the four chambers represents a different set of visions that mean something to the man she’s coming to love. His love, his hopes, his hate, and his disappointments are all described in sometimes tedious detail as Ceony searches for a way back to the real world while unravelling the mystery that connects Emery to Lira and the Excisioners. And info dumping Emery’s characterization without actually letting us interact with the character.
It’s not a bad conceit, it just drags on too long. There are only two brief scenes of peril with Lira, despite the fact that she’s supposed to be chasing Ceony. The rest of the bulk of the book is Ceony watching someone else’s thoughts. I felt too far removed from the action and while I learned a lot of facts about Emery, I didn’t feel close to the character. And Ceony moves from, “I think I have a crush, maybe,” to “he doesn’t love me yet, but he will!” in the span of 48 hours. It’s just oddly paced.
Once Ceony gets free and confronts the villain, the book picks up again. The final battle could have gone a bit longer; it’s a shame to tease some offensive paper magic and then drop all the paper in water. I wonder if Ceony can work her magic on wax paper… Still, the book is awfully fun. It’s not a perfect debut, but the highest recommendation I can give is when I closed The Paper Magician and immediately opened The Glass Magician to see where Ceony and Emery go from here.