Review: The Paper Magician by Charlie M. Homberg

The Paper Magician - Charlie N. Holmberg

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 


This review will skew to the negative side of the spectrum, and I don’t write very many negative reviews. Not because I have anything against them, but because I don’t finish books that deserve them, or waste time writing about them.  This book was not terrible, it just wasn’t great. And it COULD have been great, which is kind of terrible.


Not ten minutes after I started scribbling down ideas for this review, I ran across this Atlantic article in my newsfeed:   Stop Making Excuses and Finish That Book. Synchronicity? Maybe, but it was interesting to think about the advantages (or disadvantages) of finishing a book you’re tempted to set aside. Having recently done some reading on self-control and the benefits to children, this one stuck out:

Second: Fortitude. When a book makes me antsy I sometimes think of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the late 1960s, which found, in brief, that children who were able to wait longer before stuffing themselves tended to do better in school and have a healthier body mass index later in life.

I can say that sticking with this book was frequently an exercise in fortitude. But I didn’t keep going out of a sense of dogged determination, per se, but rather because the book had so much potential, I felt it deserved a chance. So that would make my real reasoning the next on the list:

Third: Respect. As any agent will tell you, it is one thing to start writing a novel and another thing entirely to finish one. Many would-be authors simply cannot bring a work of fiction to completion, which is part of why publishing houses, as a rule, won’t enter into contract until they see an ending. The difference between being able to write 50 pages and being able to write a whole novel is the difference—at least, one major difference—between a professional and a dilettante.

I don’t buy fully into this philosophy; sometimes a crap book is a crap book and I won’t waste my time, but I felt that a novel like this, with so much possibility, deserved the respect of completion. There were so many good elements that were simply undeveloped or shunted aside for unnecessary things (like romance) that the author could learn from and improve in the future.


And speaking of romance, when will YA authors stop forcefully inserting it where it isn’t necessary? Or make it happen so rapidly that it is about as deep as a plastic kiddie pool? I love YA novels- the Slate “you should be ashamed” article was also referenced in the linked one, how appropriate- but the tropes are wearing so thin they won’t hold much longer for me. This one used several to poor effect:


  • Magical education (that takes too little time and is tested too soon to be believable)
  • An unassuming, *twinkling* teacher with a mysterious past
  • Immediate jump from dislike to infatuation
  • Unwarranted female competition over a man


There were structural difficulties holding it back as well. The pacing of the story was incredibly uneven, much of which goes back to my point about the magical education taking too little time, but some of which is also a rush to “get to the point,” i.e. the knowledge that Ceony is harboring a hardcore crush on her teacher, with very little build-up or intent. The big confrontation of the story occurs too quickly and does not feel organic, but is rather dragged out for half the book to fill in backstory which, though not badly constructed, is not enough to fix the lack of flow.  Similarly, the Bad Guys (or Gals) come out of nowhere, with a lack of dread, or any real idea that they should exist at all.


I suppose I should interrupt this with a look at the elements I did like- the ones that give the book the potential that roused me to bother with this in the first place. Ceony, our heroine, is not a bad creation; a scholarship student whose dreams are dashed when she is assigned to a paper magician rather than one who works with metal, she is both truculent and resolved in equal measure. Though prone to quick judgments, she is believable and decently well-formed, even if her photographic memory is a bit convenient.


The REAL potential- and unfortunately that which was wasted most- was the world and the magic system. The idea that magic is conducted through man-made materials, and that you are only able to bond with and use one type (paper, metal, plastic) is interesting and could really be a fantastic approach to magic. But the rules just aren’t there- we learn about bonding with materials in the first chapter, when the heroine has to actually do it; for something that is so vital to the magic system, it ended up feeling rather unimportant.  There is also a disconnect with what characters say about the difficulties of magic, and how easily it is performed when needed to suit the plot.


Along with the magic system, the world is similarly underdeveloped. It took me halfway through the book to figure out what time period this was intended to take place- no speech or behaviors indicated that this is supposedly occurring somewhere between 1910-1920, aside from a few references to Ceony working as a servant to save up for school. This specific time- at the beginning of the 20th century- has the potential to be interesting, since it doesn’t seem to be a common choice in fantasy stories.


I keep going on and on about the problems in this book, even when I’m discussing things I liked, but here’s the thing: with some more development they could be fixed and this book could be a good beginning to the series. The magic system, the world building, even the potential romance, just need more structure and detail to be something great.  If it didn’t have this potential, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. I can’t deny I’m disappointed that good ideas can so easily be wasted by poor execution, but if it’s any consolation, I think it’s better to have good ideas and bad structure, than lousy ideas with impeccable composition.