The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg
No matter what, books are always interesting. Could be interesting because they are bad, or because they are great. Or because they are strange, or wonderful, or powerful, or wholly unique. Perhaps because they are unexpected and challenging to finish. However they do it, books will always peck at our minds in one way or another.

The Paper Magician affected me in a couple of odd ways. Firstly: I started off liking it and then I didn't like it, then I did, then it was so-so, then I really liked it and in the end, I found it basically pretty good. Which is a very ho-hum thing to say, but it's the truth. Secondly: I really wanted to get through it because I read somewhere in a review (I think) that the book’s sequel (The Glass Magician) was excellent and much better than the first. Now, truth be told, I'm not even sure if I read that about this particular series. I tend to line up lots of TBR books on my Kindle app so it could be that I heard the sequel was better than the first in a completely different series. Which would mean I powered through The Paper Magician because of a reason that doesn't even apply. To me, that's a weirdly interesting reason to finish a novel.

This story features a likable, strong female MC named Ceony Twill. Ceony has recently completed magician's school and her next step is to be an apprentice for a few years under a full magician's tutelage. Unfortunately for Ceony, she's given the discipline of paper folding as her one and only magic specialty. That's the niche of the magic system in this series. Magicians are bonded to a specific man-made material and they can work spells with that item only. Paper, rubber, glass, metal, plastic, etc. Ceony is not thrilled about becoming a “folder” but when she meets Emery Thane, her mentor, her feelings slowly change. The training starts off nice and smooth and paper magic turns out to be better than she thought. Ceony generally enjoys her new surroundings and even develops a secret crush on Thane. But soon, disaster strikes.

It turns out that evil-doers can break out of the normal magic system and learn to work deadly blood magic. Those who undertake this dark art are known as Excisioners. Emery Thane’s heart is ripped out by such a person and Ceony takes it upon herself - though she’s barely trained - to save him. This is where the book takes an extremely ambitious and startling turn. After a confrontation with the Excisioner, Ceony finds herself actually, literally, physically trapped inside Thane's disembodied heart. She must travel through its four chambers, survive the challenges she faces there, and then escape. All the while knowing that IF she makes it out alive, she'll still have to face the nasty Excisioner who's threatening the two of them. Inside Thane's heart, Ceony sees visions of the magician's memories - good and bad - and catches glimpses into his hopes and fears. Through all this, she further falls for Emery Thane and risks all to save him.

I liked the unique magic system and the set-up of Ceony traveling to the Magician Thane's home to become his apprentice. But when the inside-the-heart part started, it seemed a bit much. However the surprising uniqueness of that whole situation took me over and I grew to like it. This carried on for a while and the book started to lose me again. The inner heart bits were a roller coaster between cool and tedious. Finally, the big ending confrontation happened and that was well-done so I liked the book again. And it all wrapped up nicely leaving me with the feeling of "well, that was pretty good".

Lofty ambition in a novel is something I definitely admire and truly, I imagine it’d be hard for anyone to pull off descriptions of the inner workings of a heart AND to thrust a physical character into it. As I mentioned, Ceony is literally in the heart, wading through blood filling up the chambers and pressing her body through the valves. All the while experiencing visions of Thane’s past and floating through his dreams and such things. The story is a little rough during these times and we as readers really have to let go of reality, even more so than usual. All in all, Miss Holmberg handles the text quite well. She is a skilled, highly creative writer and that talent consistently shines through.

On the flipside, I didn't really enjoy Ceony's developing crush on Emery Thane because at first it felt a little forced. However, when her emotions deepen as she travels through his heart, learning more about him, it all becomes more believable. Though the whole mentor/apprentice or teacher/student thing remained a little off-putting. Thane is described to be not much older than Ceony (she's 19, I don't recall Thane's age being specifically mentioned) so it's not necessarily uncomfortable in an older guy/younger girl way. It just seems a bit forced and not a natural love interest. Yet Miss Holmberg sticks with it and slowly, the crush begins to make sense. I suppose it’s true that one can never choose who one loves. And if you really want to find out exactly who a person is, tromping around in their heart for 24 hours is a great way to sort them out!

The other thing that set me back a little with this novel was the random, limited usages of fairly gory violence. Blood is ever-present because of the Excisioner blood magic and because Ceony spends most of the book physically inside Thane’s heart. Beyond this there are a few small passages with some pretty descriptive gore that could be a little disturbing for some readers. A lot of it relating to the heinous evil of Excisioner magic. These parts are so limited that I find myself wondering, why go there? Why not soften up the descriptions enough to keep this an accessible book for younger readers? Or, if you are going to have potentially disturbing violence, go full bore and get after it so the book becomes fully adult. Sprinkling in two or three shocking scenes seems a strange decision and only makes the target audience that much more difficult to identify.

This write-up now basically falls apart as I have to admit: I don't really recommend this one but I also don't un-recommend it. Hopefully the sequel, The Glass Magician, turns out to be fabulous and then I can circle back around and say The Paper Magician is a must-read, if only to get you through to the sequel. Alternatively, I can say with confidence that if you like magic, origami, brain science and cardiovascular biology - this one is for you! If that’s not you, and this write-up has still seemed intriguing, then feel free to read it and "fold" your own thoughts. Just look out for a few small parts of possibly disturbing violence and make sure you screen this one before sharing with high school readers.

Happy Folding! Err...I mean READING!