Themes Explored: cultural identity, illiteracy, wizardry, magic, earth magic, fairy culture, independence, feudal society, illusion vs reality, the meaning of life, fragility of the human spirit, romance, morality, political intrigue
Synopsis: While attending a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and somehow walks into another realm. There, she is quickly embraced by the glamorous Ilissa and her debonair son, Raclin. But the sheen soon wears off and Nora finds herself in the middle of a decade s long magical battle. In order to survive in a fairy tale gone wrong, Nora must learn magic herself.
Review: I picked up The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic on a whim and with no expectations. For a debut novel, I thought the storytelling and characterization was pretty good. Some reviewers have been a tad harsh, I have certainly read much worse. The book is not perfect, but it is not nearly as bad or boring as some people would have you believe. Maybe I just have a high tolerance for slower novels; sometimes I like a slow burning plot. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is Emily Cray Barker’s first foray into fantasy fiction. Ms. Barker is an accomplished journalist and this shows in some of the scenes depicting and discussing magic and its properties. This is the first book in a proposed series, so some of the loose ends are left dangling. I hope the nest book comes out soon, I am an impatient reader.
The book opens with Nora Fischer’s life falling apart: her boyfriend is marrying someone else and her dissertation is in tatters. While at a friend’s wedding, Nora decides to escape everyone for a while. So she walks across the mountain and stumbles through a world portal. However, this magical land is fraught with dastardly forces and she is the newest pawn. In the first couple chapters, Nora goes from independent English PhD candidate to a heavily enchanted mindless doll (figuratively, not literally). Barker weaves together fantasy and romantic tension when Nora meets the enigmatic magician Aruendiel. The narrative draws a lot of parallels to Wuthering Heights and Pride & Prejudice. Aruendiel is an odd mixture of Darcy and Heathcliff, one minute charming then morose. I thought he was an interesting character, a little thinly sketched in some areas, but nonetheless compelling.
The overarching narrative is fairly standard. Someone from Earth stumbles into an alternate universe and proceeds to be hopelessly confused for several chapters. However, the dialogue is the strong point, each character possesses a distinct way of talking and the vocal interactions are well written. Ms. Barker’s journalist training is evident in her discussion of the history of magic. She pays special attention to genealogical nomenclature, wizardry versus “real” magic, literature, cultural differences, the politics of speech, and the power of poetry. I enjoy reading about world building and I thought these scenes were great. It could have been better executed, but since it is a debut novel, I am inclined to be a tad lenient. Some of the explanation could have been trimmed to help accelerate the story. But I never felt bored.
My biggest grip with the novel is the depiction of Nora. She is supposed to be a highly intelligent woman, but some of her characterization is contradictory. In the beginning, her lack of wits is accredited to a befuddling spell. Once that spell is removed, Nora still oscillates between intelligence and something close to deliberate stupidity. Some incredulity is understandable, but Nora still questions the existence of magic halfway through the novel. And she has already seen several magical demonstrations by this point. Her lack of understanding is rather disingenuous. Also, she lacks a scholarly curiosity and walks around in a confused daze for most of the story. A highly intelligent woman would have learned to adapt and move on in half time it takes Nora. She is extremely judgmental of the women who are merely living according to the rules of their country. In this realm, gentlewomen are encouraged to be shy and demure. The language is even divided into different speaking styles based upon gender, the women always sound hesitant. Nora berates the women for not striving for independence and deems all the gentlewomen to be whores. But she is incredibly nonjudgmental towards the lesbian black female magician. And no one challenges Nora’s perceptions, even though she comes close to insulting a lot of people. For being such an intelligent and open minded woman, she is quick to judge people who have never learned another way of life. I found this to be rather annoying because Nora continually judges people as if they were raised with her values and world view.
Nora’s uneven characterization is the largest stumbling block in the overall flow of the narrative. Otherwise, the book has a solid plot and contains some interesting character studies. Unfortunately, Barker’s style is slightly stilted and hampers the progression of the main narrative arc. Barker switches points of view while in the middle of describing a scene. She attempts to depict the action from multiple perspectives, but the execution falls flat. The result is a rather sluggish progression and some haphazard pontification. This problem could have been circumvented if Barker had focused exclusively on one character’s outlook.
Thankfully, the plot development comes together better than the character studies. Nora’s progress in her magic studies is believably slow and ordinary. She does not instantly become a master magician in two chapters; she has to start at the absolute beginning. The third act of the story has the strongest writing. Nora has a literal poetry infused fight with an ice demon and has to use her sophomore magic. This gives some payoff to the buildup from the previous two acts. However, the ending is clearly a lead-in for a second installment. I thought the ending could have been wrapped up a little better, it feels incredibly rushed and thinly plotted. Also Nora earns Aruendiel’s respect unbelievably fast, especially since he thinks women are not worthy of wielding magic. The secondary character, Hirizjahkinis, is a more compelling heroine than Nora.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic includes a lot of elements that are essential for a solid fantasy adventure. The story has just enough original twists to remain interesting though it is hardly groundbreaking. Though it was refreshing to read a story where the main character is not some long prophesied messianic figure. Nora is about as ordinary as possible. I enjoyed the book, despite its foibles. It is a solid debut novel and has the potential to become a compelling series. Hopefully Nora becomes a slightly more intelligent woman in the next installment.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, Penguin Books, 2013, ISBN 9780670023660
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