Charlie N. Holmberg – The Master Magician

I’ve been putting this off for a while… at first I didn’t know what to write, then I wasn’t sure if I should waste a post about this at all. Should I tell you about all the ways this book is a fail? Or focus on just one or two? Should I just leave it altogether? But the completionist in me refused to stop reading after book 2, and after pushing through the entire trilogy, I feel I can do you, dear readers, a service by warning you. If you want brainless entertainment, the first book is okay. But do yourselves a favor and just stop after that.

master magicianTHE MASTER MAGICIAN
by Charlie N. Holmberg

Published by: 47North, 2015
Ebook: 226 pages
Series: The Paper Magician #3
My rating: 2/10

First sentence: Ceony, wearing her red apprentice’s apron over a ruffled blouse and plain brown skirt, stood on her tiptoes on a three-legged stool and stuck a square of white paper against the east wall of the Holloways’ living room, right where the wall met the ceiling.

Throughout her studies, Ceony Twill has harbored a secret, one she’s kept from even her mentor, Emery Thane. She’s discovered how to practice forms of magic other than her own — an ability long thought impossible.
While all seems set for Ceony to complete her apprenticeship and pass her upcoming final magician’s exam, life quickly becomes complicated. To avoid favoritism, Emery sends her to another paper magician for testing, a Folder who despises Emery and cares even less for his apprentice. To make matters worse, a murderous criminal from Ceony’s past escapes imprisonment. Now she must track the power-hungry convict across England before he can take his revenge. With her life and loved ones hanging in the balance, Ceony must face a criminal who wields the one magic that she does not, and it may prove more powerful than all her skills combined.

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Oh boy. Let’s just get all the terrible problems out of the way before my head explodes. The lack of research for the historical period from the first two books continues here. Everything feels so very modern, so very American, that I kept wondering why the author wanted to set this in London and in the past. She clearly didn’t care enough to have anyone proof read the book to find all the glaring anachronisms. That is the least of this book’s problems, though.

Ceony, who was plucky and fun an in the first book, albeit a walking, talking stereotype, has now gone full-on idiot. Not only does she do forbidden and dangerous things – after TWO books of exactly this behaviour almost getting her killed and actually getting her friend killed – seriously, does this woman never learn? She may talk like a modern day woman but her ideas of gender roles are straight out of the stone ages. Women cook, men do… everything else I guess? Women, of course, are also supposed to be beautiful, but only so long as Ceony approves of their type. She shows distate on several occasions when other women act stereotypically feminine (wearing frilly dresses, giggling, being girly), but when she herself turns all 50ies wife or giggles, it’s okay. You know why? Because she is SPECIAL!

The story here is not just lame, it’s even lame in-universe. The villain from the second book – remember, the only Indian person in a cast so very, very white – has escaped and is now the villain of book number three. He is a villain because… the plot calls for something to fight, apparently. He has no agency, no personality, no motives – all he has is dark skin, an accent, and a desire to do evil for evil’s sake. I can let a lot of things slide but when an author so clearly doesn’t take the time to question what she writes, when research is deemed unnecessary, the book that comes out of this reads as if a five-year-old wrote it. And I’d hazard a guess that my imaginary five-year-old could have at least come up with a more interesting (and less offensive) villain. Hell, why not put a big monster in there for Ceony to fight?

Even if I could ignore all of that (which I couldn’t), the author decided to overhaul her entire magic system. Sure, Ceony found out in the previous book what NOBODY HAS FOUND OUT BEFORE: that magicians can break their bond to their chosen material and switch between materials as they wish. All they need to do is say some words… if this weren’t stupid enough already, suddenly Ceony can not only bond to all man-made materials – which was the whole premise of this trilogy – but to fire. I don’t know about you, but my interpretation of fire is not exactly that it’s a man-made material. Yeah, we can strike a match and “make fire” but it’s not the same as paper, plastic, or steel. This was a major moment of fail that breaks the entire internal logic (haha!) of the series.

If, at this point, I had cared about any of the characters, I would probably still have groaned and rolled my eyes at the blatantly obvious ending. Of course it ends with a marriage proposal. Because that’s the one thing Ceony needs, right? For her master magician to finally make a married woman out of her, so she can cook his meals officially, without society frowning upon it. Her discovery of new magic, her job application to the crime department, those are just background. What she really needs is other people’s approval for her need to feed her man.

So, the bad stuff is out of the way. That leaves me with – nothing. Sorry. Everything in this book is a mess. There is no plot, there are no stakes, there is nothing I cared about, and nobody I wasn’t annoyed with. Be it the forcefully inserted story about Ceony’s jealous younger sister, the pretend difficulty of her magician test (come ON, it’s all sooooo obvious, a baby could solve it!) or the hunt for the villain. There are the soppiest of soppy moments, there is the lame and unoriginal love story, there is no substance whatsoever. My God, am I glad that this is now over.

MY RATING: 2/10 – So very, very bad!

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Second opinions

Charlie N. Holmberg – The Glass Magician

There was really no reason for me to continue the Paper Magician series after the first book, except wanting a bit more of the same and needing another book that doesn’t require my brain to be too awake while reading. The second part of Holmberg’s trilogy was better when it came to pacing, but pretty bad when it came to other things.

glass magiciaTHE GLASS MAGICIAN
by Charlie N. Holmberg

Published by: 47North, 2014
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Paper Magician #2
My rating: 5/10

First sentence: A late summer breeze wafted through the open kitchen window, making the twenty tiny flames upon Ceony’s cake dance back and forth on their candlewicks.

Three months after returning Magician Emery Thane’s heart to his body, Ceony Twill is well on her way to becoming a Folder. Unfortunately, not all of Ceony’s thoughts have been focused on paper magic. Though she was promised romance by a fortuity box, Ceony still hasn’t broken the teacher-student barrier with Emery, despite their growing closeness. When a magician with a penchant for revenge believes that Ceony possesses a secret, he vows to discover it…even if it tears apart the very fabric of their magical world. After a series of attacks target Ceony and catch those she holds most dear in the crossfire, Ceony knows she must find the true limits of her powers…and keep her knowledge from falling into wayward hands.

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Ceony is well into her apprenticeship and Charlie Holmberg doesn’t have to waste any time explaining her magic system again, so it’s straight into the action with this book and, to my surprise, there’s enough time to introduce new characters and fill Ceony’s world with a bit more than just herself and her master magician. Ceony’s friend Delilah, while mostly a bland stand-in for glass magicians who lacks personality, is nonetheless a nice addition to the very small cast. Through her, Ceony learns a lot about what glass magicians do – and it was these very ideas that I found genuinely interesting. Glass magicians use mirrors not only as make-shift telephones (or rather, Victorian Google Hangouts) but also as portals, and this offers a whole new world for a fun plot to develop.

About the plot… Ceony has to discover that her actions in The Paper Magician have consequences and, despite having bested the evil excisioner in the first book, there are others who want to use Ceony for their own plans. There is a magical terrorism attack right at the beginning, Ceony behaves like a proper idiot (seriously!), and there’s a continuation of her romance with her teacher, a romance still as stale as old soup. Emery Thane keeps being kind to Ceony, Ceony calls him by his first name (which makes everyone go: Manners!), there is still no visible reason for these two to be so in love with each other. They just are. Well, there is one chapter from Thane’s point of view in which he muses about why he is in total True Love with Ceony, and one of the main reasons (hold on to something, please!), is that she’s a good cook. I mean fine, I enjoy a good meal as much as the next person, but I don’t fall in love with the chefs at my favorite restaurants…

Aglass magicias much as I loved the idea of glass magic, of Ceony and Delilah running off to secretly portal themselves to and from places, the main plot sets the scene for a very obvious twist. And this plot twist could have been pretty good if it weren’t so damn easy to discover for both the readers and Ceony herself. I simply can’t believe that all the generations of magicians before Ceony have been so uninterested, so strict with the rules of magic, so lame that they didn’t try out things simply for the fun of it. Because the big secret that Ceony discovers… about 500 people should have accidentally discovered it before her. This doesn’t make some action-y scenes any less exciting or fun, but the book also still suffers from the same problems the first volume had. With the added bonus that the magic system in general is not new anymore, so glass magic is really this book’s strongest point.

The time period is all over the place again, and a quick trip to Belgium ensures that Holmberg exposes her lack of research even more. Who cares what the fashion was like in England at the time, or how people spoke, how they lived? We meet Ceony’s family who seems more American than the poor English family they’re supposed to be. There’s more casual talk of guns and fashion and make-up bags, and it didn’t gel at all because everything was picked together without the slightest bit of thought on the author’s part. If it were only language and skirt lengths I could have overlooked it, but this extends to class differences, to women’s roles in life, to everything. I mean, women can become magicians without any problem or social stigma – we have seen this in the first book – but then even if they have their own profession, they’re still expected to mainly exist for feeding their husband. Which of course they need… because why?

Another thing I noticed was that one of the villains of the story is Indian. He is the only Indian man I have met in these books so far, and he is a psychopath crazy killer… Given that the rest of the cast is overwhelmingly white, I wonder at the decision to make the creepy villain Indian. There are also some strange comments throughout the books the expose stereotypes galore. Any man who can’t cook, accodring to Ceony,  needs a wife (because, gals, that’s our main job – feeding our husband), and she promptly decides to set up said man with her friend Delilah… never mind if they actually like each other. Ceony likes both, so naturally, they must be set up so Delilah can cook for him and he can.. erm… be a man I guess. I don’t know.

So you see, in many respects this book was worse than The Paper Magician, but being tired and exhausted and unable to think very hard at the moment, I decided to switch off the critical part (as well as most others) of my brain and focus on the plot and the action. And that is the one thing where the series has improved. I can’t say I like any of the characters much – with the exception of the paper dog Fennel, maybe – and the ones that I am supposed to like are so cardboard that it makes no difference if they live or die. At this point, I wasn’t as excited to jump into the last instalment of the trilogy but they’re short books and I still hoped for some improvements. Spoiler alert: I should have stopped after this one.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

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Second opinions:

Charlie N. Holmberg – The Paper Magician

Sometimes, when you’re stressed and a big, fat fantasy book is just not something you want to start right now, you grab a thin little volume that sounds as fluffy as can be. I read the entire Paper Magician trilogy during the last week and this first part was just the kind of shallow, silly, but cute story I needed. The others… well, I’ll tell you about them when I finish my reviews.

paper magicianTHE PAPER MAGICIAN
by Charlie N. Holmberg

Published by: 47North, 2014
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Paper Magician #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: For the past five years, Ceony had wanted to be a Smelter.

Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic… forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined — animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner — a practitioner of dark, flesh magic — invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

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This unusually slim fantasy book begins with a generic  set-up. A young woman is apprenticed to older, wiser magician to learn the craft. Despite having been done a million times before, it was an utterly charming beginning. Ceony immediately dislikes her new master, but when he makes and animates a paper dog for her, she dares to hope that a career as a paper magician will not be quite so bad. He teaches her how to fold magic, what spells to use, what words to speak in order to bend the material to her will.

When an excisioner, a woman from Magician Thane’s past, appears and promptly rips out the man’s heart, Ceony replaces it with a paper one, to keep him alive long enough for her to retrieve his actual heart. This quest will literally lead her into Thane’s heart, where she needs to be clever, and resourceful, and brave. None of this is very deep or original, but (much like Marissa Meyer’s books) it was just perfect for the kind of fluff I was looking for.paper magician

One thing that jarred me out of the otherwise lovely experience was the historical setting. It’s supposed to be Victorian England and as far as most things went, this was believable. Mainly, the setting doesn’t matter much for the plot and the time period has mostly an effect on how people speak. World-building as such is non-existent and a few anachronisms (or at the very least things I felt were anachronisms) made me look up and stop reading. Make-up bags? Shot to hell? There were many expressions that, to someone like me who hasn’t done any research other than reading other books set during the same time, kick you out of the reading flow and make you wonder if you haven’t mixed up two books in your brain and this is actually set in contemporary times. But no, you haven’t. That was the one part that was truly bad. Whether it’s lack of research on the author’s part, lack of noticing it on the editor’s – I don’t really care.

Another thing that went past me was the romance. Of course there has to be a romance. Normally, the mentor/mentee situation, especially if you’re faced with a grumpy Rochester-type, is totally up my alley. But other than being polite and kind to her, there is nothing much to recommend Thane as a romantic interest. And if that’s all it takes to make Ceony fall in love in a matter of days, then I can’t speak very highly of her as a character. So yeah, insta-love.

Now here’s the thing. Despite all of that, despite its problems and the lazy writing, there is something charming about The Paper Magician. It’s a simple world, one where a young woman can literally save a man’s heart by using her mind and her kindness, by improvising and by facing her fears. It’s a world full of magic that has to do with man-made materials. It may not be well-explored (yet) but it’s somehow adorable – and there’s a paper dog who can kick just as much butt as a real dog would.

So don’t expect too much from this book, but if you’ve reached one of those moments where work is taking over your life, where you spend your evenings on the couch, tired and too weak/lazy to do anything, pick this up. It’s fluff, pure and simple, but it gets the job done. Uplifing, light reading, without any depth or world-building. Comes with an extra helping of magic.

MY RATING:  6/10 – Alright, I guess

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Second opinions: