Tome Scour Review: The Paper Magician

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Off My Feet

I came across Charlie N. Holmberg’s, the Paper Magician, when I was browsing the free titles of Amazon for Kindle, just after my tonsillectomy. If the surgery was going to keep me off of my feet for the next couple of weeks, I might as well enjoy a novel between doses of sleep inducing pain medication. The cover and title both perked my interest. The art perfectly captures the nature of what I thought would encompass a “paper” magician’s character.  I immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle phone app. After reading the first page I was so intrigued I decided to buy the novel rather than read any further. Prime had it to me the next day. In truth, the novel should have stayed on my app.

For the Past five years, Ceony had wanted to be a Smelter.

However, while most graduates of the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined got to choose what material they dedicated their craft to, Ceony had been assigned.

From the first page, Ceony, our protagonist, is introduced with a  clear dilemma. She is assigned her magical career, rather than one of her own choosing. The medium of paper has “lost credit” and Tagis Praff (her school) has no choice but to send some students into paper to keep it going.

The introduction is engaging and leaves me wondering what else this alternate Earth has to offer. And more importantly, who lives here and how do they exist in this world? Through worldbuilding devices such as Holmberg’s use of magician as a title shortened to Mg. the world has a lived in feel. It suggests an integration of magicians into society where magic is part of the everyday life, not too dissimilar from meeting a doctor, and like them there are many types of magicians with their specialities from glass, paper, metal, and the forbidden dark art of flesh. All of this is introduced on page one, well except for the named specialties, that is explained later.

Unfortunately this is as good as the story gets. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Holmberg gives great detail to her setting. I love an author who can get me to smell, to see, and feel a setting, however, she is long winded. At the beginning of chapter one the setting is well established, and then it quickly becomes droll with the author’s long explanations. Even her short showings are unnecessary for the reader.

Here is an example of when Ceony is looking down hallways:

The first right opened onto a small front room that, despite being filled with clutter, was deftly organised: everything from candlesticks to books shoved in a most orderly fashion onto shelves, with clay ocarinas, marble sets, and more books crammed into straight lines across the mantel.

I struck through unneeded material from Holmberg. That last bit of text, which is not the first time we see this and certainly not the last, is unneeded. Unless, of course, it is essential to the story. The clay ocarinas being placed into that sentence is a specified item that is never seen nor heard of again. Even saying musical instruments would make little sense at this moment. The character, Emery Thane, owner of all this “organised” clutter is never expressed as being musically inclined. I believe moments like these are the author’s way of trying to show the reader character qualities, rather than telling. Which of course is wonderful, I appreciate an author who can do exactly that, but the character of Thane has already been expressed: He makes neat clutter.

Speaking of character, lets take a look at our protagonist, Ceony. She comes from a humble background and has pulled herself up with perseverance and wit, only to be thrown into the mud again.

‘I’ve been shot to hell,’ Ceony Murmured. 

An expected response from anyone who has lost their dream to bureaucracy. But who could blame her? The setting that Holmberg describes is horrifying and where she is expected to start her education, a run down house. However, shortly after this declaration she makes a mental note of disregarding her knowledge of a magician’s home being more than what it appears which is when the house reveals its true form. Ceony has achieved much at this point in her life, but it seems to have spoiled her. She has become bratty because of it, arrogant even. I thought this great development and conflict of the character. I thought that this would be expanded on. This is not the case, Ceony becomes a very flat character in her bratty ways. She whines throughout the remainder of the novel, boasting to herself about her abilities and then becomes self conscious the next moment.

Normally, a character who struggles with such a vice as pride can be great development.  A reader can be witness a grand master’s fall, a rich merchant lose it all, allowing them to be more relatable to the reader in their humility. This reads as if Holmberg could not figure out a way to support Ceony through the novel. She reuses a lot of her inner conflict, gives her forced moments of realization to overcomer her odds. It’s as if Holmberg becomes desperate to keep the novel going as far as she can take it.

The only character that doesn’t feel stretched is Mg. Emery Thane, Ceony’s teacher.

The knob turned without the faintest trace of footsteps on the other side, and when the door opened, Ceony screamed and fell back a step.

A skeleton greeted her. 

A man of many quirks, paper skeleton servants at the top of that list, Thane is the most vibrant character of the novel and a good source of conflict. However, even this falls flat after a while, but it leads to the revealing  of the antagonist, Lira, his ex-lover. The amount of dragging I had to do to reach this point made me feel that the novel was about halfway over. Then I realised it was only a third of the way done. I am left wondering why these drawn out segments were left in the novel.

As I stated before, Ceony, feels thinned by this point, along with her interaction with Thane.

‘You have too much to teach me! And you’re too nice to die!’

This, for me, is the moment when the novel started to take a nose dive. Lira attacks the house and steals Thane’s heart, who is now dying (I won’t reveal how is living). Her character declares that Thane is “too nice to die”? I know this can be real, such ridiculous things said in high moments of stress, but that? Homberg couldn’t think of another way to express Ceony’s despair and fear? Cutting out the nice part would improve that drastically.

Anyway, this scene is abrupt and jarring.

Ceony’s real story and quest begins. She searches for Lira to retrieve Thane’s heart. Once found, Ceony becomes…trapped?…in his heart. Holmberg never exactly explains what happens to Thane’s heart and why Lira turns it into the “trap” (not even sure what it is supposed to be) that Ceony gets lost in.

For the rest of the novel Lira chases Ceony through Thane’s heart till she escapes and defeats her. Then she returns the heart into Thane’s chest and the world is happy again.

I really thought we would see Ceony explore this world and its magic. The magic did not interest me. Almost all spells seemed to require a single word to function, and most of the time it was “breathe.” The heart prison is entertaining and one more moment towards the end of the novel. They were not enough to make up for the lack in the remainder of the novel. All the magic is manual, one needs to fold the paper themselves and then say a command word. At first I thought that this is the way magicians learned to work with their material, they physically practice. Then once mastered, a magician would have the potential to control paper and fold it with magic into the spells they need. Never did this come up. The magic had such potential and the author missed her mark.

I have spoken about great worldbuilding leading to great characters. A character is a product of where they come from, and if that product is bad or lacks, the characters will be bad and lacking. I have stated in previous posts that you cannot worldbuild at the same time that you are writing the story the novel. It can lead to failures in conflict, and in this case, the author seeming desperate. The beginning is great, and so the characters start out great, but they falter when this world falters. The magicians hardly play a role, the magic is a bore, and the world doesn’t seem to fully exist. In every facet of this novel, the author appears to struggle in a long story format. Holmberg stretches paper-thin (horrible pun intended) to extend the story to novel length, where she would have benefitted it at novella length.

For my score.

Worldbuilding: 4.5 – If it felt completed, maybe a 5.

Characters: 5 – Aside from Ceony’s lacking character, the other characters are at least moderately interesting.

Story: 5 – A story arch does in fact exist, so that is why it gets an average score.

Overall Score: 4.8

Almost average.  This novel could be drastically shortened to novella length. This author had a great idea, though I am certain she has had this novel greatly workshopped to the point of trying to make everyone happy. One must understand that not all readers will enjoy your work