I began reading The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, with great anticipation—as it turns out, too great. Its opening pages reminded me of another series (of which I have read the first two) that I recently loved (and reviewed here), the Art Mages of Lure books by Jordan Rivet, beginning with The Curse Painter. They seemed like similar systems of magic, in which the practitioner invests everything in learning how to bring magic to the world through a particular medium, in that case paint and in this, paper.
In this series there is a particular magical system, in which potentials attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and (ideally) by the end of their studies have discovered with which material or element their skills are best-suited to work. Ceony Twill has graduated at the top of her class with every expectation of being able to choose her path as a magician, and her inclination is towards becoming a Smelter, a worker of bullets, jewelry, and all things metal. Instead, she is informed by her mentor that there is a severe shortage in the world of magicians who can work with paper, and she is therefore being assigned to a Folder for an apprenticeship in paper magic.
Ceony’s level of dismay is more understandable when you realize that once a magician chooses a material with which she will bond, that is her medium for life—there’s no changing over to a different field in this system. Still, her new mentor/trainer, Magician Emery Thane, has much to forgive in her first few days as she in turn exhibits reluctance and indulges in sarcasm and sheer petulance. But as he pursues his rather quirky methods of instructing her in the folding of paper into marvelous creations with all sorts of uses (and also none, save for beauty and whimsy), Ceony is gradually won over to the idea that being a paper magician might have its own appeal.
I loved the book up to this point. The idea of binding to a specific material and only casting through that medium was intriguing, and the initial instruction by Mg. Thane (don’t you love that abbreviation?) in how “folding” works was wonderfully portrayed. Consider if you could use origami techniques to fold a paper crane—or a dog, or a dinosaur!—and, if you’d done it perfectly, being able to say “breathe” to it and bring it to life, or at least to animation. Imagine creating an entire garden out of folded paper tulips that would go back to bud every night and bloom again in the morning, or folding a paper airplane that you could actually use to fly across town.
I also loved the grounding of the book in the transitional period between the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Some houses have lightbulbs while others still use gas lamps, or candles. Some drive automobiles while others rely on a horse and buggy for transport. And alongside all this mundane detail, being a magician is equally common—just another job in the world.
Unfortunately, as intrigued with the job of paper folding as she was rapidly becoming, Ceony was also in short order beguiled by the smiling green eyes of her teacher, Mg. Thane. I sighed a little and prepared to be treated to some insta-love alongside the solid characterizations and nice set-up in world-building that Holmberg had created…and then everything went to hell in a handbasket, as people in the 1870s might say.
Why the author chose to hare off on the tangent she did, especially in the first book of the series, is a mystery to me. Suddenly Thane’s ex-wife pops into the picture as a super-villain who takes over the story, even though we have previously never heard of her and are abruptly informed of her ill will towards Thane, his attractive pupil and, in fact, pretty much all and sundry, with a few short sentences about the kind of bad magic she practices; but we have no background on her history, motivations, or abilities. And we are not destined to get any! Instead, she attacks Thane, and Ceony embroils herself (despite being only a couple of weeks into her apprenticeship) in an attempt to save him. Those efforts take up the rest of the book.
I know this is a little spoiler-y, but honestly, I was so exasperated by the turn things took that I couldn’t get over it! There are three more books in this series, although by reading the descriptions it seems like #4 is an add-on; the first three are centered around these two protagonists (Ceony Twill and Emery Thane), while the last seems completely detached per its description. The other books reveal more about the magical system, in that they address people who are able to work glass, plastic, etc., and I am a little tempted to keep reading because of that aspect…but the set-up for book two has Ceony pining over her as-yet lack of attachment to Emery, and I just don’t know if I’m up for it, particularly since there are also promises of a repeat of book one: the introduction of a rogue character who upsets the apple cart again.
I’m not telling you not to read these books; the characters are appealing, and the situations, despite their lack of context, are imaginative. But when I compare this series to the afore-mentioned one by Jordan Rivet, there’s just no contest; and I could wish that this writer had had a more astute editor to say “stop, wait, think” when she decided to take a turn for the dramatic, and point out a more logical, integrated way to pull it off.