Fold 'em If You Got 'em
The Paper Magician
As I've noted before, I'm a picky reader. A lot of novels don't appeal to me for whatever reason, maybe because the hook of them doesn't hook me, or because the author's writing style doesn't quite gel with what I'm looking for. Whatever the case, more often than not I struggle to find authors I actually like to read, and when I find one I do like I tend to want to read everything from them. A author has to have just a large enough body of work that I can sink my teeth into it for a while, but they also have to show they're worth reading even once. Most times I just go back to books I like and read them again instead.
Wandering through a used book store recently, though, I stumbled on a series by Charlie N. Holmberg. What drew me was the simply, clean graphic design on the book cover, plus the fact that the whole series of books was there: The Paper Magician, its two sequels, and a spin-off. This seemed promising to me as it had the potential to give me a new series to read. I grabbed the first book of the set, the aforementioned Paper Magician, and added it to my pile with the assumption that if the first book was good I'd be back for me. And, well, it's just good enough that I'm interested in seeing where the series goes next.
In the novel we're introduced to Ceony Twill, an apprentice magician who just graduated from magician's school after one year of schooling. Upon graduation each magician is paired up with a master of a chosen magical craft where they will then spend their next few years learning the practical aspects of the craft, bonding to a specific material and becoming a magician of that type. Ceony's craft will be paper, making her a Paper Magician, although this choice wasn't exactly hers. She wanted to work in metals, to be a Smelter, but the art of paper magic, of Folding, is dying with only a few magicians left in the field. Ceony is shoved over to being a paper magician and sent to meet her new teacher: Thane.
Although initially bitter at losing her chance to work with metal -- once she bonds to paper she's unable to pick up any other kind of magical craft -- Ceony soon finds much delight to be had in the art of paper craft. Thane, for his part, is a great teacher and he brings joy and wonder to the art of paper magic. Soon Ceony gets absorbed in the work, and finds that she doesn't hate the companionship of Thane either. She feels a bond to the magician and starts to wonder if there might be more there. Sadly, whatever thought she had for her future is interrupted when an evil magician, one who works in blood, shows up and steals Thane's heart (quite literally right out of his chest). To save her teacher Ceony will have to take all the craft she's learned so far and chase off after the Excisioner. Her teacher's life is in her hands.
At it's core The Paper Magician is a Young Adult novel. It's a quick, fast read with a pretty simple story that trucks along as the reader gets into it. All the hallmarks of the genre, though, are there: a female hero who's story is told from a third-person limited perspective, the lead being an unwilling heroine (although unwilling in this case because she wanted to do some other magical craft), and that bit of a love story that, apparently, keeps all the readers hooked on the characters. I've seen the very broadest beats in most YA stories and The Paper Magician doesn't deviate all that far in that regard.
What works to the story's favor, though, is that the world built in the novel is quite compelling. Although fantasy isn't my usual reading material (I lean more toward sci-fi or, at the very least, vampires) the book has a strong hook that leans it away from the usual fantasy tropes. The idea that magicians can learn a specific type of magic -- each one based on a man-made material like metal, glass, paper, plastic, or, yes, other humans -- is interesting. It limits the powers of our heroine, keeping her grounded even as fantastical things happen around her, and it also defines the scope of what she's capable of. I found myself invested simply because I wanted to see what kinds of papercraft the book could come up with.
The book manages to not let power creep overtake the story, too. Once the Excisioner shows up (and I won't spoil all the details on that front), Ceony ends up not only on a chase after the villain but also an adventure through Thane feelings and memories. While this part of the story feels like it could get magically over-powered as Ceony and the Excisioner battle through these fantasy moments, the novel actually uses it as a way to ground the characters and add further development across the board. The journey may seem weird at first blush but the book quickly sets down rules about how it all works and sticks to those rules. I appreciated that greatly.
Thane, in fact, is a really well realized character. Although we don't learn his entire life story all in one long info dump (thank goodness), the novel does a good job of shading in his history and explaining key parts of his life. We learn why he wanted to be a paper magician, how he might have a connection to Ceony, and how he's directly connected to the Excisioner as well. Everything about Thane is handled really well and I found him to be a very compelling character by book's end.
Ceony, though, is a different story. Due to the way the book is setup, her character seems pretty shallow (and a little spiteful) for the first few chapters. A lot of that can be explained by her character getting railroaded into being a Folder before the book even starts, so she's still getting over that disappointment. It does leave the character in a place where it's hard to bond with her, at least until she gets over this hurdle and throws herself into her work. Once she does, though, she becomes a lot more interesting.
The other thing the book does that's odd is it keeps all of Ceony's past hidden until the back section of the book. We learn a ton about Thane through the story, almost making the book his tale even though its told from Ceony's perspective, but we don't learn key points about her past until the book is practically over. Who she is, where she came from, and how she got into the magician school is all withheld from us long past the point where we, as readers, really should have learned about it. These are details that help to shade in our heroine and make her more interesting (certainly give her more depth) so it's odd that the book keeps it from us for so long.
Despite that there is a lot to like in the novel. The magic is interesting, the world is fleshed out, and there's a lot of potential for these characters as they look ahead to where to go next. Ceony becomes vastly more interesting by book's end and I found myself wanting to find out where she goes from here. It might have taken a while to get to that point, but by the end of the novel I was interested in seeing the further adventures of Ceony as she become a Paper Magician. Certainly I'm interesting in seeing what other works Charlie N. Holmberg has available as their writing is pretty solid. Quirks of this novel aside, the author has a solid writing voice and I'm interested in reading works from them again.