The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician,
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Publisher: 47North
ASIN: B00HVF7OL0
226 pages, Kindle Edition
Published: 1st September 2014
Source: Amazon Kindle First

 Ceony Twill is a talented young woman who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor and her own dedication, has beaten the odds of her disadvantaged background to graduate top in her class at a prestigious school of magic. Her abilities and promise argue that she should have preferred choice in her apprenticeship. However, in a world where magicians bind their abilities to one particular material, the greatest needs of society and the magician’s true inherent talents may not lie in the most glamorous material they yearn to work.
Ceony finds herself assigned to apprentice a mysteriously aloof paper magician who she knows nothing of, and she enters his home dreading the training that awaits her, certain that it will be nothing but uninspiring. Instead she rapidly finds herself enamored with the subtle art and potential power of paper magic and with her mentor, Emery Thane. Emery is charming, yet demanding. But, Ceony also sees Emery’s forlorn spirit, trapped in a past he keeps closely guarded.
Falling in love with her mentor and his trade, Ceony hopes to gradually open Emory up, but the sudden arrival of her mentor’s former lover threatens both their lives and the world of magic alike. Ceony takes it upon herself to help discover the secrets of Emery’s ailing heart, heal him, and save both her new mentor and magical society.
Holmberg’s The Paper Magician is an example of a fascinating premise that at first glance seems to hold tremendous promise as a symbolic and moving fantasy centered around love and the emotions of the heart. This universe that hails from an era with ‘historical novel’ airs and involves magicians bound to specific mediums is richly rendered, both familiar and intriguingly fresh.
I really adored the opening chapters of the novel, and both Ceony and Emery are fascinating characters.  Protagonist Ceony nicely has the active role of ‘saving’ the man rather than the traditional reverse gender roles of fairy tales or fantasy. Yet, their developing romantic attachment and the pure evil of Emery’s ex make their relationship simplistic and conservative where the female is still precisely defined by the male. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the story and characters, just a note that the story isn’t as subversive as a reader may first expect.
The appearance of Emery’s former lover is when the novel takes an abrupt turn with an arrival of threat, tragedy, and quest where Ceony enters a magical (and allegorical) journey into each chamber of Emery’s heart. The interesting, although more ‘academic’ portions of the early chapters where Ceony is learning her art and the reader is being introduced to this fascinating world give way to a straightforward, and increasingly dull quest. However, I did find the ultimate ‘showdown’ ending to be satisfying.
The novel thus has some great aspects, but also some real problems. Ceony is well written, but the initial promise of Emery vanishes when the plot shifts to portraying him solely via his unconscious emotions. The Paper Magician is a quick read, and the start to a series whose second volume is already available for advanced reading. I personally am not sure about continuing with the series. There is some promise here for quality and exploration of different magical fields (materials). But there’s also the good possibility of it continuing down a similar route where the story – or execution – veers to areas I wouldn’t really find interesting or fulfilling. Yet, readers that devour fantasy diversions or particularly like the genre flavored with a historical setting or aspects of the romance genre could find this really enjoyable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this through the Amazon Kindle First program.

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story,
by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
ASIN: B00BSBR382
337 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Though I finished it a few days before writing this, it was hard to determine what to say exactly about this sophomore novel from Setterfield. On the one hand, it is written well, almost lyrically in spots, but on the other hand the story never captivated me. Part of my ambivalence while reading and upon completing this novel stemmed from its description. It is not a ghost story. I don’t think there is any way to really interpret it as a ghost story other than aspects of it are haunting and that the protagonist is indeed ‘haunted’. I may have been more receptive if I hadn’t started this expecting something quite different.

Though titled Bellman & Black, this only concerns the second half of the book, really. The novel is really about Bellman, the protagonist, from a young age until his death. There is the eagerness and vitality of his youth, sexually and professionally, that is perhaps driven by the absence of his father. This youthful drive compels others to pay attention to Bellman, and soon his hard work and vision leads him to industrial success and the start of a family. Upon reaching these heights, Bellman’s world is shattered by the deaths of almost all he holds dear, driving him further into his work, which in the second half involves starting a funeral business that Bellman is inspired to form after a mysterious encounter (perhaps imagined) with a Mr. Black. Bellman’s world becomes completely occupied with his industrious spirit and desire for profit. Forsaking friends and family he uses the business of death to amass funds that drive him into further fears of losing all he has, now to his mysterious and absent ‘partner’ Black.

The reality of Bellman’s life (and the intersection of the fantastic in the form of Mr. Black, who is perhaps conjured in Bellman’s mind alone) is symbolized by the dominance throughout the novel of rooks (related to crows). In childhood, Bellman once threw a rock at a rook, which killed it. This event seems to haunt Bellman, and in the fantastic element of the story, it is implied that Mr. Black is an embodiment of the rook, seeking amusement and revenge for what was done to their kind. As the rock traced an arc in the sky leaving a dead bird, so too does Bellman’s life arc to a height only to then drop to inevitable death.

These ideas are actually quite good, and Setterfield’s descriptions of rooks are the highlights of the novel. However, the fantasy and the reality never intersect enough to work effectively. The majority of the novel is taken up with the reality of Bellman’s business dealings, and to a lesser extent relationships. The novel thus becomes a historical fiction detailing a man whose life becomes an obsession over business and profit, a combination between “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Dressler”. This type of novel has been done frequently, and Setterfield doesn’t add anything particularly new to this aspect. Instead she adds the fantastic slant with the crows and their symbolism, never really settling on whether they are in Bellman’s head alone, or an actual paranormal manifestation in the form of Black.

“Bellman & Black” therefore has a lot of promise, and given the popularity of her first novel (which I haven’t read) I’m sure many will adore this book. I think I would have, had it not been marketed the way it was, and if the Black storyline had been introduced much earlier rather than so much space spent on detailing Bellman’s prowess at industry.

Two Stars out of Five

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DY5KS0A
183 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

There were some good aspects to this young adult book, but ultimately I found it disappointing and lacking.The overall plot is an interesting take on witch trials and, (I’m being vague so as not to give spoilers) is actually a mix of several genres, not simply a rehash of history with an exaggerated magical spin.

As a young adult genre book it has a certain amount of thematic predictability: a focus on strong young characters that must step up to take on responsibilities of the impotent adults; a focus on action, protagonists getting out of stick situations; forbidden romance and erotic yearning. Yet each of these elements are handled well from a plot perspective. The plot is kept lively, it is not predictable in the details of its outcomes, and it features both strong female and male characters without that mistake of making the females beholden to their attraction to the male and reliant on his presence to save them from trouble. The action scenes are well composed and the more horrific supernatural moments are perfectly described.

However, the downside of the book is foremost its character development. The protagonist begins the book clueless of her reality, both personal and universal. She does not yet know she has magical powers. Her powers appear, and her knowledge increases in bursts from chapter to chapter with little explanation on how they have developed or how they truly affect her. No particular rules for the magic are established, so its ultimate use in the conclusion of the novel feels like a fantastic deus ex machina – there is no reason to suspect anything isn’t possible for the witches, so there is no resonance with or empathy from the reader when the climax arrives. This lack of character development is not limited to magic. Many actions or decisions by characters seem to just happen. At times explanations for actions are given by characters, but with nothing more than a statement that makes it appear nothing more than the author covering their bases of ‘explanation’. In other words, it often felt as though the author was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Other actions or key elements of the setting that are eventually revealed are not explained at all, perhaps setting up a sequel, but leaving this novel unfulfilling.

Despite my not liking the book much due to the above, it would likely be of interest to a young person wanting to read a quick entertaining fantasy tale with characters they can relate to. The themes are obviously overt and not subtle, but they are all good themes and moral dilemmas for a young person to consider. With a little more work establishing this world and its characters it could have been phenomenal, so I would read something else by the author in the hopes of that aspect improving.

Two Stars out of Five