For a book that clocks in at only 226 pages, Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician sure delves into a lot of backstory. Stranger still, most of the history lessons aren’t about the main character.
That would be Ceony Twill, a recent graduate of the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. Ceony wants to be a Smelter, a magician who works with metal. But because Folders are in short supply in Holmberg’s version of early twentieth-century Britain, she’s apprenticed to Emery Thane, one of the country’s few paper magicians. Ceony takes the development hard—once a magic-user bonds to a material, he/she can cast spells with no other medium. And paper seems good for little more than origami-style parlor tricks.
But Ceony gradually starts to see the merits of her assigned craft, as well as those of the quirky Thane. So when his ex-wife Lira, an Excisioner (a magician who works with blood), appears and steals his life force, Ceony does everything she can to rescue him.
Here’s where the backstory bonanza comes in. While trying to save Thane, Ceony falls into a trap of Lira’s that enmeshes Ceony in Thane’s memories (instead of just, you know, killing her). Getting out requires exploring all the nooks and crannies of Thane’s past, through which we learn much about him… but only a little about Ceony.
Holmberg keeps the historical spelunking reasonably interesting by interspersing it with chase scenes of Lira pursuing Ceony through Thane’s pivotal moments. And Ceony grows in the process. But the digression goes on a bit long for such a short tale, and the way Holmberg literally develops one character in the character of another—while ambitious—didn’t quite do it for me. Especially since Ceony keeps telling herself that, to escape, she has to get through all of Thane’s core memories; by the third repetition or so, it starts to feel like Holmberg is trying to convince the reader to stay the course.
The magic system is fun, though, and even with the backstory overload, The Paper Magician is as quick a read as its page count suggests. Worth a look if you feel like knocking something out in one sitting.