“The Paper Magician” by Charlie N. Holmberg

A bold plot structure and startlingly original magic lifts this, sometimes graphically violent, YA Edwardian adventure into something special

I don’t normally reveal plot elements but I can’t review this book without sharing some of the early events.

“The Paper Magician” takes place in an alternative Edwardian England in which Magicians, people bonded to a particular man-made material, are able to work magic with it, producing bullets that don’t miss or animating paper birds so they can fly, are part of the establishment.

At the start, the story seemed to be a pleasant but conventional tale of the first days of a talented young woman’s apprenticeship to a Magician bonded with paper.

I settled down to see how Ceony, our hard-working and talented young apprentice would prove herself to her endearingly eccentric Magician. The tone was light. Ceony was an earnest young woman with a troubled past, a strong spirit and an innocently optimistic view of the world. The magic Ceony was taught to achieve by folding paper was original and imaginative. The Magician was kind-hearted, a little distracted, remarkably unsexist for a man of his generation and clearly had secrets. So far so good.

Then, suddenly the story changed both in tone and in structure and took me to somewhere quite unexpected. Ceony’s magician is attacked at home, in front of Ceony and has his heart ripped out and taken away by an evil magician.

The violence of this was quite unexpected and very effective. From that point on the level of violence increases as Ceony struggles to retrieve her magician’s heart.

In a further surprise, Ceony’s struggle turns out to be a very unconventional one, involving very high concept magic that is well thought through and woven into a clever plot structure that combines the physical rescue of the magician’s heart, a review of key moments from his life and from Ceony’s and dramatic, very physical conflicts between Ceony and the evil magician who stole the heart.

There’s a lot going on in this book. The magic is new so there’s a lot to explain. The plot structure is a bold concept but the story could have dragged as the mechanics of the plot were followed. Charlie Holmberg keeps it all moving and kept me engaged by focusing on Ceony’s experience. Ceony is brave, talented, determined and has a few scars of her own that shape how she responds to the threats that she meets.

This was a pleasing adventure that has a lot more to it than action but never got bogged down either in the mechanics of the plot or in existential angst. It was more violent than I expected and the magic was startlingly original but it remained an adventure in which the good can triumph if only they try hard enough.

“The Paper Magician” is the first book in a series. I’m interested in reading the rest of the series but I know I have to be in a particular frame of mind to get the most out of this kind of read so I will save it up for the next time that I need an escape into a simpler world where we all know who the bad guys are and we can cheer for the bravery of the good guys.

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