The Paper Magician Series — Charlie N. Holmberg
In The Paper Magician, set in an alternate turn of the 20th Century, Holmberg has created a unique magical world for the series. Trained and licensed magicians work with only one particular medium among those available — all involving man-made materials. We first meet Ceony at the close of her education when she is to begin her apprenticeship. Ceony wants to work in metal — to be a smelter. However, after completing magic school (all theory because students can’t perform magic until they bond with their material) she is instead assigned to apprentice with a folder — a paper magician because there are only eleven left in England. Ceony is not happy about it, but finds that she wants to please her teacher, Magician Thane.
The set up is well done, and Holmberg has created a wonderful system of magic. We learn through Ceony’s eyes about what can be done with paper. But, as she goes through her first couple of days of apprenticeship, she begins to question if Thane is hiding something. He leaves for a few days and returns, but is attacked by an excisioner — someone who practices dark magic using flesh as the medium.
The remainder of the novel is about what Ceony must do to save Thane. The experience Ceony has is a creative, interesting way to give the reader insight into both the larger magical world, but more importantly, Thane and what evil forces exist in their world. The novel was a quick read, and the characters were well drawn. Ceony could be an annoying young adult while Thane turned into a wonderfully complex character.
The biggest drawback to the first novel was that the relationship between Ceony and Thane was predictable and the metaphor of what happens to him became a bit of a bludgeoning hammer towards the end. I found myself wishing that after Ceony was released from the entrapment that she and the villain would have a more drawn out confrontation.
The second novel, The Glass Magician picks up three months later — Ceony and Thane, despite growing closer, try to keep the relationship as respectable Apprentice / Magician relationship but has difficulty convincing others. Not one but two villains are after Ceony. As in the first, her curiosity gets the better of her and she ends up jeopardizing others. The action starts early and is maintained at a decent level throughout, but having two antagonists — not one seeming villain that is a red herring — seemed to weaken the overall story. Had the second and third novels been combined into one novel, it might have felt different, but for me, it didn’t work as well. Again, Holmberg provides more creative magic that still felt fresh. Book two gives us more insight into magic — particularly glass magic and we learn more of the oversight of magicians and how magical crimes are investigated. The relationship, while still predictable, felt a bit more mature than the first novel.
In the final novel of the trilogy, The Master Magician, Ceony is forced to keep a recent discovery about magic and bonding secret from even Thane. A previous villain returns and as seen in the previous novels, Ceony’s choices tend to make be ill-advised decisions that impact others. For much of this novel Ceony and Thane are separated when Thane, to prevent the appearance of favoritism, sends Ceony to study and test with another folder — one who is arrogant and hates Thane. The addition of a new ‘side-kick’ was entertaining, but all in all, the novel felt, in places, being simply a variation on a theme. For me, Ceony’s growth was limited and the end left me a bit flat. Not at all a terrible book, but I wanted more and thought Holmberg squandered some excellent opportunities.
Overall, the series provided an entertaining experience despite flaws. In a few parts, Holmberg left me craving more from an author who created a wonderful concept of magic but didn’t transfer that creativity to the relationship or plot (despite the bangs and whistles) as much as needed.