Gotta Learn 'em All
The Master Magician
Fantasy is a hard genre for me to get into. I'm pretty sure I've noted that before, but it bears repeating. I like worlds to have rules, I like them to be consistent, and I like when some new aspect is added in that it comes from what we know, and have seen, so that it naturally adds to the world we're already absorbed in. Some fantasy writers can pull this off, many can't, and much of it comes down to magic: how does your magic work, how are you using it, and can you build your magic off what we already know without making it feel like each new spell or incantation is a sudden deus ex machina added in to move the plot.
This is an issue I've had with the Paper Magician series as of late. I really enjoyed the first of these novels by author Charlie N. Holmberg. I felt like The Paper Magician was a light and fun fantasy story that balanced world-building alongside fantasy expansion, all while balancing the needs of its YA genre (i.e., a love interest tangled in a triangle). It moved at a quick pace (expected due to its YA length) but didn't skimp on the important details for its heroine, her love interest, or the villain. And the magic -- enchanted paper-craft -- was interesting and something I hadn't seen before in fantasy. In short, it just worked.
Since that first novel, though, I feel like the series has lost its way. Sequel The Glass Magician was rushed with its storytelling, failing to give the villain the needed development they deserved to be interesting. They were a treat, sure, but a hollow one, and the book needed more. At the same time, new twists to the magic system were introduced that didn't really fit into the rules of magic from the first book, and my worry was that as the series developed further more twists and complications would get thrown in that would "cheat" at the magic for the sake of the plot. Sadly, with this third book, The Master Magician, I was right.
Book three picks up with Ceony Twill, our protagonist, a few months after the events of The Glass Magician. She's still reeling from the death of her friend at the hands of the previous villain, and she wakes some nights in terror. Her comforts are her love, paper magician Emery Thane, and her magical works. She's not just casting paper magic now, though, as she's working to master the (secret) art of switching her elements so she can learn all magics. She wants to, in short, master them all (thus the title of the novel). She's nearing the end of her apprenticeship, though, so she has to buckle down in her paper-craft and study under a new teacher (so that Emery can avoid the appearance of favoritism to the student that he loves) so Ceony can become a proper magician.
Unfortunately, one more fiend comes out of the woodwork to haunt Ceony. Siraj. the third of the trio of excisioners that have hunted Emery and Ceony in the past, has escaped from prison and is back around London. He may be there to kill Emery and Ceony, or he may have other plans, but whatever he wants Ceony can't let him roam free. It's time for her to once again strap on all her magic and go to work to stop these blood-mages before they cast their evil into the world. This is her last big fight, and she knows it.
The first, biggest issue with this novel is one that has plagues the series since it's start: Ceony is too perfect. A protagonist, especially one that is a student learning their craft, needs to be imperfect. They need to be able to fail, to take lumps, to learn and try again, all so they can improve and follow their heroic journey. Ceony, though, started this series basically perfect from the outset. Yes, she had to learn her magic (or, at this point, magics) but she never had to worry about doing them wrong. She's gifted in this series with perfect memory (which the novel calls out more than once), as well as perfect morality (as the novel always justifies everything she does). In short, despite this being "The Master Magician", Ceony has always been the master character. She can do no wrong and never fails.
This third book would have been a perfect time to illustrate some of her failings. We cold have seen her struggle with the new magics she was learning having some of them blow up in her face (but they rarely do). Or she could have put so much time into her other crafts that she let her paper magic slide such that she struggled in her final tests (but she doesn't). Hell, we could have used her having to study under another teacher as a way for her to realize she was living in a small world with one set of opinions and that there were other ways to do things, other ways to make the world better... except, no, she's always right and even this plot line doesn't push against her.
The one time where it feels like Ceony does anything wrong at all is when she first goes after Siraj. Here the book kind of, sort of implies that if Ceony hadn't gone after him he wouldn't have turned his attention towards her, and thus she created her own self-fulfilling fears. Except this idea is never explored, and frankly the book never chides Ceony for chasing after the villain. You have to read between the lines to even see this as a mistake, and its not one that Ceony is judges for. Not in the slightest.
As far as that villain is concerned, Siraj is just as bland as those who came before. The book writes him with a smirk and an evil glint in his eye, but then it doesn't flesh him out at all. Why is he in the London area? What is his plan? What does he really want? None of that comes up at all, and all of that is necessary development if we're to care (or fear) this foe. We don't, leaving him as a shallow threat that we know Ceony will eventually best because it's her book series and she can do no wrong.
Hell, the book bends over backwards to let her have all the master magics she wants, without judging her for doing magics she's explicitly barred from. She should be punished for casting magic other than paper-craft, as that's against the rules of the Magicians. But she isn't. She gets to learn this new magic out of the blue, despite the rules of the world, and then when Siraj wants to know the secret, the book comes up with a new rule as to why he can't be a master magician but Ceony can. It's pretty dumb and just shows there really isn't any consistency to the magic systems at all. It's whatever the author wants, and that's that.
I didn't hate The Master Magician. It was a decent read, at times quite fun still, but it was also shallow. It left me empty in the ways so many fantasy stories have before: fun in the moment, but with a world I can't invest in because the riles simply don't matter. I need more from this series, and from fantasy in general.