Ceony Twill is a 19 year old recent graduate of a magic academy and despite her wishes, she has been apprenticed to Paper Magician Emery Thane. See, in this world, magicians can only work with (by being “bonded” to one material, and a man-made one at that. And, well, paper-folding is the lamest of the lame. Not nearly as impressive, we are told (not shown) as working with metal or glass.
Naturally, over the course of the book, we’re supposed to change our minds and realize the incredible power of paper but that just doesn’t happen, especially when the paper spells are all fairly blah. In fact, it seems the entirety of being a paper magician is being able to either make visualizations something you read on a page (cause it’s paper, duh) or making an origami figure and saying “breathe.” So the better you are at origami, the better a magician you are. Which would make most teenagers in our world pretty good since the first spell Ceony learns at the hands of her mentor is something we here in 2014 (when the book was originally published) call an Origami Fortune Teller and is found in every junior high school in the land. Maybe it’s powerful because the book is set at the turn of the 20th century in England? That’s something else we don’t really know because Charlie Holmberg never really explains the inner workings of her magical system to her readers.
Sadly, Ms. Holmberg never even gives us a sense of the magic infested world she has created beyond the smallness of her plot, which concerns her mentor, Thane, having his heart literally ripped out by an ex-wife. Lira, who practices the evil, dark magic which uses the man-made material of human flesh (cause people make people, duh). Since by the time this happens, Ceony is hopelessly infatuated with Thane (for no apparent reason), she goes after Lira and on an adventure through the actual heart of Thane in an effort to rescue him. This journey through his four chambers (euphemism? maybe) takes up the bulk of the book and reads like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol had a premature baby.
Holmberg’s character development leaves something to be desired as she makes a huge deal, at one point, of Twill being afraid of water, which never pays off. Thane is a non-entity throughout the book as we are told everything about him as Twill observes his fragmented life (each chamber of his heart corresponds to some sort of indefinable emotion like hope or regret and Twill is an observer of Thane’s memories). Most of the time, she’s a ghost like apparition with no ability to interact with the figures before her (remember, they’re memories) and then sometimes, for no discernible reason, Thane can communicate with her (despite the fact his physical body is miles away). Oh yeah, and for some reason, even though Lira put Twill into the heart as a kind of prison, she also seems to be following her through the chambers to be a… menacing presence, a shadow in the corner, I guess.
These problems should have all been caught be Holmberg’s editor, though, as well as the horrible over-writing and excessive use of adjectives even Ray Bradbury would have rejected.
And all of these things can be overlooked if we assume that, like with the Twilight books (with which this shares a certain provenance), I’m not a 16 year old girl and as such, am not the target audience. Then again, if I were a 16 year old girl, this ain’t great either. As my friend James Joseph Brown points out, this is “a terrible message for young girls. Be brave and strong! Embark on death-defying quests! But only in order to compete with other jealous women for the attentions of distant, uninterested men in the hopes that they might fall in love with you.” Even that, I could overlook, maybe, but when Holmberg uses both a teenage suicide and the slaughter/dismemberment of families (including small children) as a shorthand plot device with no character motivation and then very little resonance (the mass murder has a call back while the supposed life changing suicide is never mentioned before or after) I have to call foul. Holmberg is just not that good a writer to justify all of these huge, book-spanning issues.