It’s been a hot minute since I’ve read a fantasy with a unique magic system and “The Paper Magician” is certainly … different. Basically, in this version of an early 1900’s England, people can use magic only on man-made items, metal, glass, and, you guessed it, paper, along with I’m sure a bunch of other items but the author doesn’t explore those magics in this book. Oh, but there is blood magic. Which, like every other modern magic book and every single Bioware game in the Dragon Age series, blood magic is always bad. Even when they try and say “Oh, but it’s just another form of magic. It’s not inherently bad!” Cue all the blood magic users cutting their palms and then murdering people. Yeah, that’s still something in this world, too. But, the idea that you can bond to one and one kind of material only with which to use magic, THAT’S new and rather cute and whimsical.
However, I feel like a lot of this book, or this story, was left on the editing room floor and I think I know (or can guess) why. This is Holmberg’s debut novel, in young adult fantasy no less. Most publishers get nervous about that. It gets risky for them and pricey to publish a book by an unknown writer and even more expensive if that book is long. So, literary agents and publishers like this magical (ha, see what I did there?) number of around or under 100k words for these kinds of things. Now, that sounds like a lot right? Until you have to factor in this author needs to explain a new magic system, characters, and create a historical setting that most of her readers have never been to. That’s a lot to accomplish within that arbitrary word count. And, frankly, the book felt too short because of it.
Holmberg never tells us more about her other magic abilities, what are the limits to “man-made” items that people can bond to with which to use magic. She mentions a few of the obvious ones like glass and metal but it leaves me with a lot of questions. Like are their pottery magicians? Clothing magicians? If you say that blood and flesh is “man-made” and therefore can be used for magic, I’m assuming pretty much any material found in a house is fair game too but I’m not sure. Additionally, she only explains how someone would enchant paper, which makes sense given the title but since paper magic relies on complicated folds then how does someone enchant metal or glass? Considering the main character, Ceony, wanted to enchant metal but is forced to bond to paper, you’d think she’d know a little bit about the other magics as well, but she doesn’t. Plus, the author never explains how someone becomes magically inclined. It almost seems as if all you need to do is go to a special school and then BOOM! You have magic. But how? Why? What? So many unanswered questions….
The characters are cute though, I like Ceony and Emery (her teacher) but I like them to a point. I preferred the defiant Ceony, the one who bristled at being forced to bond to paper but dammit, she was going to be awesome anyway. And I like Emery’s kind of mad wizard appeal (even though I think he’s too young and shouldn’t be a love interest to pull off the brilliant mad wizard effectively) with making paper skeletons and just being this odd, scattered brain kind of man. I’d much rather have spent more time with those characters in the present as they learned about one another and Ceony softened towards paper then spend most of the book in an Emery centered flashback. Just felt like it was cheating on both characters parts because now, after the flashbacks, neither has to get to know one another, not really anyway. I’m never a fan of those fast track moments, I prefer the journey, even if it is a long one.
But despite (or in spite of?) all of these questions and feeling like this isn’t really 1900’s England but some modern day unremarkable location (even if you don’t live in London, or ever visited, Holmberg doesn’t really capture the location or the era enough for it to matter, this could be anywhere at any time so making it a period piece was… unnecessary) I enjoyed the book. I really did!
I enjoyed the whimsy of it and I loved Ceony’s paper dog, Fennel. It was a cutesy fantasy story that doesn’t have all the crazy magic you can’t even wrap your mind around. There are holes, yes, but it’s a cute YA story. I’d definitely recommend this to younger readers who probably won’t care about the issues the way older readers would. There are some mildly graphic violent scenes but they aren’t any worse then what you’d see on cable television. And really, I think that’s why this book is getting so many low reviews, it’s mislabeled as adult fiction when it is very, very, not that despite Ceony being nineteen years old.
I’ll definitely be continuing on in the series, and since the whole series is part of Kindle Unlimited (which surprised me) it’s even easier for me to want to continue on. So even though there were all these problems with the story and the writing isn’t the most beautiful I’ve ever read, because I can’t get over how whimsy this book is and how it made me smile, I’m giving it 4 stars. Never underestimate the value of a feel good story, people!