Sunday, June 14, 2015

Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magicians Trilogy: A Page-Turning Fantasy with Both Heart and Brain

I love books – both paper and electronic. Paper books and e-books provide different and unique experiences of reading, and I am often at pains to explain that the fact that I am joined at the hip to my e-reader does not mean that I love paper books any less. Living in an urban condo with limited space, e-books help me to feed my reading addiction while maintaining some semblance of floor-space. And precisely because it does not contribute to the clutter (my current desk is in fact about to literally collapse under the weight of stacked books), I will often let myself just try out a book on the e-reader that I might not have brought home from the bookstore. If I am feeling able to spend three to five dollars on a book, I can curl up and browse through the bookstore and pick something, virtually at random, to try out. That is precisely how I stumbled last November onto The Paper Magician, the first book in Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magician Trilogy (published by 47North, an imprint of Amazon Publishing). I read it fast enough that I was disappointed when it was over; it was good enough that I was thrilled to find that the second book in the series, The Glass Magician, had already been released, and when I finished that one I immediately went ahead and pre-ordered the last book in the trilogy, The Master Magician, which was magically delivered to my e-reader on June 2nd. (And yes, the thrill of having a pre-order appear just when you have forgotten about it is one of the greatest things about e-readers.)

I’d like to avoid giving too many spoilers, but the general plot of the trilogy is (to oversimplify matters) a slightly steampunk-ish Victorian fantasy romantic adventure. Our main character, Ceony Twill, is a young woman trained in magic, who we meet as she graduates from her training academy and is assigned both a specialization (with which she is not initially pleased) and a Master under whom she will apprentice (with whom she is not initially pleased). Ceony ends up appreciating both her teacher and her discipline within the first third of the first book – the plotline that stretches across all three books is that of the (somewhat?) forbidden romance between Ceony and her teacher, Emery Thane. Now, forbidden romance has become something of a cliché in contemporary literature, and particularly literature that, like The Paper Magician Trilogy, is classified as ‘teen’ or ‘young adult’ (a classification which is more limiting than I think it should be in this case). It is more-or-less the foundation of the Twilight series (ugh), and this trope of forbidden romance is almost guaranteed to pop up in any literature that is destined for the shelves of teenage and pre-teen girls. Even in more ‘adult’ fantasy literature, such as the truly wonderful All Souls Trilogy from Deborah Harkness, forbidden love is one of the axis around which the plot turns.

Novelist Charlie N. Holmberg.

What is remarkable about the ‘forbidden’ romance in The Paper Magician Trilogy is that it isn’t so much forbidden as it is complicated: Ceony and Emery cannot be together not because the law forbids it, nor because of inter-species incompatibility, but because they are genuinely concerned, for reasons that are very understandable, reasonable, and pragmatic, with not undermining each other. Ceony is an ambitious young woman, and she is aware not only of the importance of respectability, but of the degree to which sexual indiscretion (as determined by the time and place in which she lives) might affect her future career. Emery is also concerned with how their relationship would affect her future, to the extent that he breaks with magical tradition in order to ensure that no whisper of sexually-inspired favoritism affects Ceony’s attainment of the rank of Magician. This, of course, is what is missing in books like the Twilight series (which frankly I feel have no redeeming value in almost any sense): forbidden love may be attractive, but sometimes it is also just stupid. Ceony and Emery do not give up on their love, but they do recognize, and deal with in pragmatic and responsible ways, the implications and complications of their relationship. Yes, they buck expectations and social disapproval, etc., etc., but they do so in a way that is responsible and believable.

On Amazon, the Paper Magician Trilogy is classified under teen literature, and that is an appropriate classification insofar as it means certain things: it is not explicitly sexual, the language is certainly appropriate for the 13ish-17ish crowd (depending on their reading level), and it invokes many of the tropes of teen literature (obtaining independence, dealing with responsibility, love and the dangers of love). But at the same time, it is entirely appropriate for more adult readership – and particularly the first book of the trilogy, The Paper Magician, which frankly is a masterful piece of fantasy metaphor, as well as dark and bloody on a number of levels! (I don’t want to give away why that description is so appropriate – read it and you will see.)

Trilogies are notoriously hard to pull off – for example, in my opinion, Veronica Roth's Divergent series entirely failed to deliver on the promise of the inaugural novel, with the second and third books reading as an apathetic means of cashing in on the success of the first. Charlie N. Holmberg has pulled off a wonderful trilogy, albeit one that is a bit uneven. There is very little to criticize in the first two books, both of which gradually build a complex world populated by fascinating and deep characters. The first book (The Paper Magician) grounds and establishes the relationship between Ceony and Emery; the second book (The Glass Magician) elaborates on that relationship but dramatically and importantly develops the character of Ceony herself, fleshing out her personality and showing us what she is (and perhaps might be) capable of accomplishing. The third and final installment does not quite live up to its predecessors, but only as a final installment. The Master Magician reads largely like a wrapping up of loose ends, and yet it does not really wrap up all of those ends – particularly as regards the particular and unique powers that Ceony has acquired. The challenges that she will face are unresolved, in particular the question of her place in a world of magicians among whom she is both unique and in possession of deeply dangerous knowledge, and the question (which both she and Emery seem aware of) of how she will continue to be a Master Magician of unforeseen power and the wife and mother that she herself desires to be. In addition, The Master Magician introduces us to members of Ceony’s family for the first time, and it is to Holmberg’s credit that Ceony’s sister – who is far more fleshed out in this book than ever before – is so intriguing. I might wish that she had taken more time with that story line, particularly because it brings to the forefront a number of the class issues that do run through the series as a whole.

It is not that The Master Magician is a bad book – on the contrary. It is a good book, but it teases the reader and makes them want more. Thankfully, Holmberg has (in my opinion) built in the possibility of writing an outlier follow-up in the future – we already know of the existence of a new generation of Twill-Thanes, and a book that had them as the main characters might be able to clarify some of the outstanding questions regarding Ceony’s future. Ceony is a wonderful female character, who in fact learns quite a bit over the course of the series. I, and I think many readers, would like to see who she become in fifteen years and the impact (no doubt remarkable) that she will have on the world in general and the world of magicians in particular.

Charlie N. Holmberg is a young author, and these are her first books. They are confidently and beautifully written. If one follows Holmberg online, where she has an engaged Twitter account (@CNHolmberg) and website (, it becomes apparent that the humor that she demonstrates in her writing is very much a part of her own character. (In the autobiographical blurb on her website she writes of herself that, “She graduated with her BA in 2010 and got hitched three months later. Shortly afterwards, her darling husband dragged her to Moscow, Idaho, where he subsequently impregnated her.”) She is to be commended for having created a world, and characters, who are rich and engaging – I only hope that she will not entirely leave this world behind, and that (given the positive reception of the series) she is prepared to give us a bit more. I may have read The Paper Magicians Trilogy on an e-reader, but when I have the enormous library of which I dream there will certainly be a place for my own paper copies of these novels... and I imagine for some of the books Holmberg has yet to produce.

The Paper Magicians Trilogy is available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle.

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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