Books #1 and #2 from The Paper Magician Trilogy by Charlie N Holmberg – 3 out of 5 stars apiece
Source: ARC from Netgalley
Published by: 47 North (via Amazon Publishing)
Released: Available now
Buy it from: Barnes & Noble
In a nutshell:
A steampunk-esque world full of material magic meets Inner Space.
Ceony is a brilliant apprentice magician who dreams of becoming a Smelter, but finds herself instead having to adapt to becoming a Folder – a magician who works solely with paper. Her skills are put to the test when the spectre of dark magic – flesh magicians who use their powers for harm – attempt to enact a terrifying plan.
Folding is not as dreary as I’m sure you believe it to be. It may not be as exciting as Smelting or as innovative as Polymaking, but it has its own outlets for creativity.
Both these Magician books are a bit of a mixed bag.
The world building and the system of magic used are both real strengths. While I wouldn’t like to guess to an exact year what time period this is set in, it has a definite 1890s-1910s, slightly Steampunk-esque feel. And it feels largely consistent. There aren’t any prodigiously advanced machines clanking around using “magic” as an excuse. Instead, magic is experienced as an innate, trainable power that some individuals hold, which can only be expressed through a particular chosen medium, which the magician is “bonded to” after leaving training school. These material limitations help balance the use of magic very nicely – it’s hard to use your magic powers to play god when you can only work through paper!
That’s not to say that paper is useless however. When Ceony begins to explore the powers of paper magic in the first book with the help of Magician Emery Thane, whom she is apprenticed to, not only does he create a paper pet dog for her, he begins to teach her just how varied the uses of paper magic can be. The message that it is not the medium that matters so much as the skill and ingenuity of the practitioner is a good one, and it’s just as well that Ceony is a quick learner because soon she has to take a trip through Emery’s heart to save his life.
This switch of world is also very interesting and well done. Although we get periodic reminders that Ceony is travelling through a physical organ (“PA-POOM!”), it’s really a labyrinth filled with memories of varying veracity, jostling against each other. I’ve certainly never come across this as a device before, so it definitely gets points from me for novelty value. Emery Thane himself comes across as a pleasantly complicated character in Paper too, as Ceony discovers how the present day Magician Thane was created.
Which is why it’s such a shame that he appears to undergo such a personality transplant between Paper and Glass. Suddenly in Glass, we get a buttoned up, Victorian repressed version of Edward from Twilight who won’t let Ceony do anything and is impelled to save her from herself. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that Ceony falls in instalove with Thane within the first couple of chapters of Paper. But I was hopeful that maybe Charlie Holmberg was going more for the doomed crush approach, which for me would have fitted much better into the era in which the books are set.
Instead, Ceony develops a Bella-esque obsession with throwing herself into the riskiest situations she can imagine in her attempts at self sacrifice to protect Thane. Luckily, the villains in Glass do at least make this quite entertaining. Grath is every bit the sinister serial killer type of bad guy, and carries of the casual but spinechilling threats very well. But overall, I don’t think it was enough to convince me to buy any future sequels, unfortunately.
Teen readers who are looking for Twilight style romance within a more genteel, historical world.