Review of Emily Croy Barker’s “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic”

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*Review part of Female Magic Wielder’s Month-End of June-End of July*

While reading this enchanting book, the main musical theme from Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” kept waltzing around my mind,both merrily and excitedly,indicative of my main mood while reading “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.”

Customarily, fantasy books that begin in the mundane world first (our reality), and slowly narrative gears to a more whimsical, energetic parallel universe-suffused with magic- are apt to delude the reader into thinking the tale will just be an ordinary tale. Right from the beginning, Emily Croy Baker establishes herself as a clock-master, who knows how to carefully manipulate the mood of a certain scene. For someone that has just earned their English Degree and has been futilely trying to get a job with this degree, I could relate with the story’s main plucky, though intelligent character Nora because she was struggling to get her English Master’s Degree, in a modernized, increasingly more scientific world that facilely views those with the ability to analyze the nuances of literary works as increasingly unneeded and irrelevant  in a world, ruled by logos (the Greek word for “facts, logic). Our modern fantasy tales, like Deborah Harkness’ Discovery of Witches, are subconsciously being written, in a sense, about this narrative of the introvert, the artist, the perceive of the world of mythos (abstract ideas, art, unpredictable things, elusive notions) feeling increasingly more irrelevant in the modern world of logos.  In the case of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, their journey into a parallel dimension, where mythos still coexists somewhat peacefully with logos and is a more respected source of knowledge (represented by magic), is a psychological journey towards acceptance of what the world dictates to be both subversive and even increasingly esoteric (maybe even eccentric).

In another sense, Nora’s psychological journey, though, is not just about the self-acceptance of the artist (the magician in the fantasy world she gets transported to), it is the psychological journey of a woman, trying to find her identity in a world that is still mired into patriarchal, limiting ideas of women. Ingeniously, the tale begins deceptively as a traditional fairy tale, where the woman’s quest for identity ends in objectification and submitting her will and sacrificing her agency for the happily ever after ending of being wedded to a man(that she doesn’t love, but subordinates herself to him), and having his child, which sometimes ended in the physical death of the woman.  Or, the conception of a child with a husband you don’t really love sometimes ends the intellectual life of that woman, particularly if the marriage is not one of egalitarian respect for each other. Some reviewers of Emily Croy Barker’s novel stopped reading, in frustration, at this point, misunderstanding the sly mastery of the feminist tale of self-discovery that she was trying to write. They saw this juncture of the story, where Nora’s journey into the other world begins with gratification, pointing to a disappointingly sexist direction for our tale.  I can sympathize with these readers, as this early portion of the book did read a bit like Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn,which was a book that allows the main female character to learn nothing valuable or meaningful in the course of their tale, except to have all their deepest, rather conceited base desires be forever appeased. So, more feminist/judicious readers, of course, may have felt like Emily Croy Baker was weaving The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, as yet another insipid  Twilight novel.

Fortunately, this part of the tale is only one fragmentary,though pivotal piece to Nora’s larger psychological journey. It is hard to talk about the remainder of the book without divulging important plot elements that slyly sneak up on the reader. But, in this review, it is safe enough to say that Nora’s journey is antithetical to the more narcissistic, vapid  character arcs that many women in fairy tales tend to earn (Sleeping Beauty sleeps, and wakes up with consummation, How’s that for feminism?). This has increasingly become something that I have been frustrated with because in the twenty-first century, we want female characters that are not stupidly static (and mired in the delusion that self-discovery is a journey of gratification), but they are dynamic, in that their journey takes them much deeper into the type of journey that is often routinely reserved for male heroes, while female heroes just either have to fall asleep, and be awoken by some doe-eyed, physically alluring prince that will meet all their needs and desires.

Admiringly, Nora is also not a Mary-Sue/ kick-ass action heroine either, which is yet another derivative trope that some more lazy writers throw out to say, “Hey, look, this woman brandishes a sword, Now she is a feminist.” Impressively, Nora is developed very carefully from the beginning of the book to the end, and her journey and evolution does not even come to complete fruition at the end. She has a myriad number of weaknesses, her budding romantic relationship never completely eclipses her own individual journey (and is developed very maturely and slowly), and she does not become a superlatively awesome spell-caster by the tale’s end. This kind of intentionally slow, drawn out character development is almost unheard of, in a world where people often see “strength” for a character (especially a female character) as something we should thrust onto the character without any clear logical reason, except to haphazardly do something that they think appeases the feminist critics.

As evidenced by Nora’s development, her deeper, more calculated psychological development, this is the type of story that women and men, not just feminists, are seeking in their female characters. It is not fulfilling to the reader to create a character that is just strong by default, and finds their strength through the most inexplicably random way ever.    Much like Deborah Harkness’ brilliant trilogy, All Soul’s Trilogy, Nora’s journey is purposefully developed to give us a realistic, dynamic character that has strengths and developed characters that are satisfactorily developed.

My only issue with the story is that there are points, where the pacing or development of the main conflict is very uneven at times. If there is no sequel planned for this series, the other problem (which will be ameliorated with a sequel) will be that that many subplots in the story are left unresolved. I believe that there will be a sequel, so only my former criticism about the uneven pacing really warrants itself as being a true criticism. There are moments where Emily Barker might have polished this tale more, if she were to have tidied up a few of the scenes, and not let the flow of the story become obstructed by  scenes in the story that seem to get off-track.  As this was her first novel and this was something Discovery of Witches suffered from to an extent, I do believe that it can easily be rectified and improved upon in subsequent novels.

So, what is my verdict of this novel? I really enjoyed the hell out of this story, from the many fantasy elements that were revolutionary and very imaginative, to the very maturely developed romantic relationship in the story, and the very satisfying development of the very dynamic nature of Nora. Clearly,Emily Croy Barker is a wordsmith, because her prose is also very tidy, very descriptive, very compelling. Sometimes, the pacing does tend to become a bit uneven, thus making some portions of the story feel a tad bit unnecessary. Overall, the characters have a lot of depth, personality, ambiguity, and I am really excited to read the next installment, if another installment is to be released. I should also note that the clever banter is really, really well-written as well, because the two main characters of this story. Also, their entire relationship is again one of the best developed romantic pairings I have read in awhile, ever since really reading Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s Trilogy (another book that does a really exceptional job developing the romantic relationship between the two core characters of that novel.)


   Awesome Lindsey Stirling violin/dub-step piece, aptly titled for the various elements of magic that our favorite magician Nora must learn to work with, in the course of the story

I saved this last bit for the last part of my so-called “verdict” section of the review, but I also really, really loved the dichotomy that Emily Barker creates between the two systems of casting magic- “classical magic” (working or manipulating the elements of the world) and wizardry (depending upon rogue, demonic spirits). This was really interesting, and the explanations of the magic is cogent, lucid, and never becomes dull to read. Reading about it is as smooth and engrossing, as listening Lindsey Stirling’s violin piece Elements (posted above).

So, if you have an affinity for tales with non-formulaic fantasy elements, intelligent banter, and plucky/bookish female characters, this is the book to check out! I especially recommend the book for anyone that enjoyed either Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s Trilogy, or Ronlyn Domingue’s Keeper of the Tales Chronicles

Also, for fans of Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s Trilogy, I am currently giving away (courtesy of Penguin/Viking Books) Diana Bishop’s commonplace book, a hardcover copy of Book of Life, and a holographic Book of Life pin. 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Read this review when it was posted, but never actually commented here. *oops* The novel sounds amazing! I’m going to add it to my “to-buy” / “to-read” list.

    I think Emily was nominated for a Locus Award for Best New Fantasy Novel (or something to that effect) for “The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Magic.” I don’t think she won, as the awards were given out a couple weeks ago, but being nominated for such a prestigious honor is a high endorsement of her work.

    Like

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