I really wanted to like this book. (That's an ominous way to start a review, isn't it?)
The Paper Magician follows a young woman as she enters into an apprenticeship with one of the last magicians who uses paper as the medium for his magic, though she had always dreamed of bonding to metal. Just as she starts to master the basics of paper magic, her master is attacked by a woman who has become an Excisioner- a magician who uses human blood as the medium for her magic. Our headstrong heroine embarks on a journey to rescue the stolen heart of her teacher- by finding herself inside of it.
Like I said, I wanted to like this book. The author put a creative new spin on magic, with magicians becoming experts in one material or another. This means that paper magicians are able to do incredibly complicated origami that comes to life, and they are also able to bring into existence words that are written on paper. Much of it appears to be frivolous parlor tricks- both to our disgruntled heroine and to the reader- but the practical aspects eventually show themselves. (A giant paper airplane you can ride? I could find uses for that…) Our heroine is relatable- a headstrong 18-year-old with her nose to the grindstone to make a living for herself and feel less like a burden on her underprivileged parents.
But for me, that's where her likeable traits end.
I don't always have to like a main character in order to enjoy a book- Game of Thrones is chock full of characters who are obvious villains that I would never consider friends in real life, but that doesn't stop me from sitting on the edge of my seat as I read about their adventures. But it's kind of a requirement for a main character to not be utterly annoying, especially if we never have a chance to escape her at any course of the narration. (Like a certain Katniss Everdeen- I almost didn't finish Mockingjay because holy crap what a whiny, annoying baby.). I can't quite put a finger on what makes this girl so annoying, but I think it comes down to the way she is written.
Charlie is a clever nickname for the author, perhaps used in an effort to combat the cliché that an author will sell more books if the reader believes she is a man- but you didn't fool me, honey. You're definitely a girl. Know how I know?
Because Ceony is a classic example of what fanfiction authors refer to as a Mary Sue- a fictional representation of the author herself so that the author might live vicariously through this creation and do whatever it is that the author has never been able to do, which, in most cases (as in this book), is win the heart of the hot guy. (Another famous Mary Sue you may be familiar with is a certain Bella Swan- a girl whose personality has been peppered with flaws so that the author can say See, she's so realistic! even as she gets everything she wants throughout the course of the story and can seemingly do no wrong on her thinly-veiled romantic exploits that we're supposed to pretend are totally empowering adventures.)
Because yes, ladies and gentlemen, at the end of the day, when our intrepid magician-in-training finds herself inside her teacher's literal heart, she falls in luuuuuurve with him. She discovers that she wants to rescue his heart so that she might have it for herself; yes, this awkward-yet-incredibly-
intelligent teenage girl who would never consider herself to be attractive though she has perfect hair and soft skin and a tiny waist that we are constantly reminded of as we read about the skirts and blouses she clothes herself in every day- she hopes that this much older man who has been married once before and who is her teacher and also, obviously, incredibly attractive…she hopes he'll fall in luuuurve with her, too, and take her as his second wife.
And it's not like you don't see the romance coming from a mile away.
The thing about Harlequin romance stories is that they all follow a pattern. When we meet the two characters who are destined for a tumble in the sheets before the third chapter, we are greeted with a more detailed physical description than those of the other characters (unless, of course, those characters are temporary romantic diversions for our main character). Our soon-to-be lovers are always thrown into ridiculous, completely unrealistic scenarios that no sane woman would want to find herself in because in real life he's a rapist, not the man of your dreams (I'm looking at you, Christian Grey) that lead to increasingly annoying sexual tension before the inevitable overly-dramatic bedroom shenanigans. And finally, there's always some hint of danger about the hunk of man-meat that our heroine lusts after- for one reason or another, this relationship seems forbidden, and that's what ends up making it so delicious, to borrow every romance author's favorite adjective.
For the record- no, this book is definitely not erotica. There is no sex, explicit or otherwise, though there were several moments when I though that's what the author was leading up towards, as she follows the formula for a classic trashy romance to the letter. (Also for the record- that's not why I picked this book up. Nothing about the description makes this story sound like it's meant to be a romance, which is why it's so damn disappointing when it turns out that way.). There's one point in the story where the magician inexplicably leaves for a period of time and his teenage apprentice decides it's a good idea to go poking around his bedroom and cleans his dirty laundry. And more than one time she watches him working in the middle of the night. And we discover that, not only is he her master as she completes her study of magic, he is also her benefactor; he funded a scholarship specifically for her after she lost hers when she makes a scene after an important man gropes her in public- a scene which we later find out he actually observed, meaning he's defending her honor in a roundabout way. And at a time when we're supposed to be caught up in the action and suspense and worried about where the evil villainess is, Ceony has the time to reflect forlornly on the fact that the ex-wife of the man of her dreams has a much larger bosom than she does.
Classic romance novel fodder, there.
It just all speaks to the immaturity of the author, I think. But more so than the ridiculous romance-novel-y-ness, the author clearly did not do her research about the time and place where her novel is set.
For whatever reason, this story takes place in Victorian England- probably because the author, like everybody else, is obsessed with Downton Abbey. Again I'll reference my fanfiction-writing-days to define the word Britspeak for you- in the Harry Potter fanfiction community, all of the best authors were hyper-aware of the fact that the story was set in England and all (or most) of the characters were British, and no one wanted the story to sound like it was written by an American teenager, so you would seek out someone to Brit-pick your piece and make sure you didn't make any mistakes in your Britspeak. In short, there are certain words and idiomatic expressions and slang phrases that are inherently British, and those that are inherently American, and if you wanted to write a convincing story about British teenagers, you wouldn't have them talking about cellphones or pants or cigarettes- they would use the words mobiles and trousers and fags (if those were indeed the words you were looking for- pants mean underpants to Brits, so be aware of the mental image you want to paint when your attractive characters meet in the early morning in your definitely-not-a-romance-novel romance novel). And then on top of the fact that our author exposes herself as American, she also exposes herself as of the twenty first century through her missteps in word choice. I'm not suggesting that I wish to mistake this author for Jane Austen herself, but the story would be progressing along with a very modern feel and then suddenly there would be a random, off-hand reminder that oh yes, this is supposed to be the turn of the century, though our characters are conversing as if it were 2015 and the setting does absolutely nothing for the plot.
I think what the author was attempting to do was create a steampunk-feeling story, only with magic instead of technology. She sort of accomplishes this by treating magic as if it's no big deal- the fact that our main character is a magician does not warrant additional explanation because there seems to be no concept of "Muggles" in this world, or of the International Statute of Secrecy (my Potter obsession is showing, isn't it?). At first, it sort of bothered me that there was no explanation of whether or not people existed in this world who didn’t possess magical ability, and if magicians needed to do anything to hide their magic from them, but eventually I decided to let it go- after all, one of the things I appreciate most about George R. R. Martin's writing is that he doesn't take the time to explain anything to his reader, really, he just respects your intelligence and expects you to keep up. So I'm pretty sure the steampunkishness is the only driving force in the setting of this story- that and the fact that we're supposed to feel that apprenticeships are a normal thing that everybody does.
Between the whole bonding-to-a-material thing and the fact that magic is not an extraordinary gift in this world, you'd think I'd be praising this author for her originality and innovation. Alas, I can't bring myself to call her original in her rules governing magic because it seems that, in addition to watching Downton Abbey while writing this novel, she was also bingeing on Once Upon a Time. Yes, our buxom villainess goes around sticking her hands into people's chests and ripping out their hearts, and said people do not cease living. In a departure from the Evil Queen's magic, however, victims of this empty-chest syndrome are not able to continue walking about as if nothing happened and do suffer in the medical sense. So. There's that.
All in all, I probably would have enjoyed this book when I was a teenager and was able to enjoy things like Twilight purely as the fluff that they are, but nowadays if I'm going to invest my time in a book, I'd like it to be, I don't know, well-written. Even just slightly.
Read anything particularly disappointing lately?
PS Go enter my giveaway for a $50 Macy's gift card if you haven't already!
PS Go enter my giveaway for a $50 Macy's gift card if you haven't already!