Thursday, 23 November 2017

Review: The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Other reviewers have complained about the pacing of the central part of this book (from roughly the 40% to 80% marks), when the main character is in another character's heart, and has an Alice-in-Wonderland journey through his memories (happy and not), his hopes, and his fears.

For me, that part worked all right. The character had a clear goal (get through the heart and save her apprentice master, whose heart it is). There was a ticking clock - or rather a beating heart, which was going to stop beating if she didn't succeed. It was clear that she was going to have to go through all four chambers, meaning that there was always a sense of progress and of how far there was still to go. Her experiences in the heart were varied and, to me, interesting. It's true that she was often more an observer than a participant, but I thought the author got away with it.

What I am going to complain about is the incidental anachronisms, and, to a lesser extent, the Americanisms. I more or less expect a book by a modern American author set in historical Britain to use modern American English, not period British English; period British English is hard to do, and for most authors, better not attempted. It still jars me a little when I hit an Americanism (like a British character referring to her mother as "my mom"), but most readers aren't going to care.

What I find less forgivable are the anachronisms. The sense of time and place in a book depends on little throwaway details that aren't directly important to the plot, so if you are trying to create such a sense of time and place, you need to get them right. You need to not have a tire swing in 1870s England, in other words; or a bistro in London around the turn of the 20th century (since bistros originated in 1920s Paris); or a young woman living with a not-very-much-older man to whom she isn't married or related, with nobody else in the house, and it not causing a scandal; or a mixed-gender school in 1890s England, where the teachers merely swat a boy with a ruler in passing for kissing his girlfriend in the hallway. Or (and American authors almost never get this right, because in America the continued existence of class is covered over by a fiction of equality) a lack of respectful address between people of different social status.

Yes, this is clearly an alternative history, but if anything that means that incidental details are even more important to anchor the sense of time and place. If they don't matter to the plot, don't get them obviously wrong, is my view, or your setting will seem bland, undeveloped, and poorly thought through.

Apart from those annoyances, I found this an entertaining book. Its greatest strength is the magic system, which is original and varied, though it wouldn't bear close logical scrutiny; it's more on the symbolic than the literal side, which is fine if that's what you're going for. Characterization is a mixed bag; because we get shown a lot of the magician's life, but mainly told about the main character's, he seems a lot more developed than she does, and they are the only developed characters (apart from the rather cartoonish villain). The editing is good, as I've come to expect from Amazon Publishing, with few and minor glitches.

The question that always comes up at the end of a mixed review like this is "Would I read another in the series?" I'm honestly not sure. If the author had given me more confidence in his historical knowledge and commitment to getting the small details right, or if I'd liked the main character more, then probably, but as it stands, perhaps I would and perhaps I wouldn't. I've read a lot of worse first novels, and it does show some promise. In the right mood, I'd probably give the series a second chance.

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