Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
I’ll admit right off that I was predisposed to like this book. I mean, is that an awesome title or what?
So what’s it all about? In The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, we meet main character Nora, who is a stuck-in-a-rut grad student at the start of the book. Her dissertation is not going well, she’s been dumped by her boyfriend, and to top it all off, he has the nerve to show up at the weekend wedding she’s attending up in the mountains. Peeved and fed up, Nora sets off on an early-morning walk and gets lost. Really lost.
She doesn’t realize it for quite some time, but Nora has wandered into another world. Here, at the beginning at least, everything is beautiful and serene. Nora finds herself within the walls of a glamorous estate owned by the elegant, enigmatic Ilissa, who takes an immediate shine to Nora and convinces her to stay just a bit longer. Everything in Ilissa’s world is beautiful. The people are gorgeous and fashionable, there is a party every night, and Nora is, much to her own surprise, the belle of the ball. Everyone wants to know her, to dance with her, to talk to her. It’s all just too perfect to believe — and yet Nora does believes it all. But before long, an uglier side comes to light, and eventually Nora grasps at the help offered her by a stranger in order to be rescued from Ilissa’s clutches.
Once rescued, Nora finds herself in the castle belonging to Aruendiel, a famed and mysterious magician, who removes layers of enchantments from Nora and heals her physical wounds as well. As it turns out, Nora had been in the clutches of the Faitoren, a powerfully magical people who are imprisoned in their own lands by magical treaties and wards, and whose queen, Ilissa, wants desperately to break free. Nora finds shelter with Aruendiel, and eventually convinces him to begin teaching her magic — real magic, involving working complex spells in harmony with the elements, as opposed to lower-level wizardry, which relies upon calling upon spirits and demons, and carries much less status and power.
From there, we see Nora progress in her magic lessons, accompany Aruendil to court and socialize with the upper crust, and get involved in a daring rescue and a land battle, among other escapades. Along the way, Nora’s relationship with the prickly Aruendil develops beyond pupil/master to something more complex, involving respect, honesty, and perhaps even… love?
Enough with the summary! Let’s get down to business. Here’s what worked especially well for me:
Nora herself is a nice, refreshing main character: a smart woman with a mind of her own, who wants to feel purposeful and respected, and demands to be treated with consideration. It’s disconcerting to see how far from herself Nora ends up while under enchantment; even before she realizes that something is wrong, we can tell simply by how mindless she seems, reflecting only on the sparkly clothes and jewels and adornments of Ilissa’s world, never seeing beyond the surface of the endless fun.
I liked the magic lessons very much, which make it clear that in this world, magic is a science. There are scholarly papers and research to be studied — it’s as much an intellectual pursuit as a question of mysterious powers or tricks.
The author makes nice use of literary references, sprinkling quotes and passages throughout Nora’s thoughts — as is appropriate for an English literature Ph.D. candidate! As Nora works on translating a copy of Pride and Prejudice into the language of her new world, it’s a nice to way to set up the not-too-obvious parallels between P&P and Nora’s own current situation, coming close but not quite crossing the line into heavy-handedness.
A few things worked less well for me:
For one, this is a long book — much longer than necessary, in my opinion. At 563 pages, the book has a lot of what felt like filler to me, particularly the sections focusing on Nora’s daily chores, life in the village, etc. There’s a lot of detail, and a lot happens, but as a whole, it probably should have been leaner and tighter.
Nora stumbles into this new and strange world — but it’s really not so strange for anyone who’s read any other works of fantasy. The world in which Nora finds herself seems like a pretty standard medieval setting. There are lords and manors, negotiated marriages in order to form alliances and control estates, court gossip and shenanigans, knights and battles. It’s entertaining to read about, but there was nothing that felt particularly new. It wasn’t hard to predict the rumors that would surround Nora’s sheltering with Aruendiel, the breaches of protocol that would ensue when Nora felt the need to be entrepreneurial, or the social niceties that must be observed at all times.
Finally — shoot me now! — there was no ending! There was nothing to indicate that this book is the first in a series, but the ending was so entirely open-ended that I can only imagine that a sequel, or several sequels, must be in the works. As I’ve complained many a time, I really can’t stand reading a book that’s to be continued without knowing up front that that’s what I’m getting involved in. This book ends with the closing of a chapter in Nora’s story, but makes it clear that there’s more to come, and much to be revealed and resolved. And honestly, I felt a bit cheated to have read such a big book and then not get closure at the end.
Still, all that being said, I enjoyed The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic very much. There’s some lovely writing here, with moments of insight as well as humor. A few choice examples:
In all the stories in literature and mythology about women being offered as tribute to beasts or monsters, no one ever spelled out exactly what that meant, or what it might be like for the woman afterward.
Or on a lighter note:
“I worked as a cook, a couple of years ago,” Nora said. “Before I was, um, a fairy princess.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Toristel, as though this were a well-established career progression.
There was her low-grade obsession with Aruendiel. Nora had given up calling it a crush; it had lost some of its urgency, and it seemed indecorous now that he was officially her teacher. (Even across the worlds, she felt the invisible constraints of the sexual harassment policy of the Graduate College of Arts and Sciences.)
Despite my quibbles, I do recommend this book. It’s a treat to read about fantasy worlds from the perspective of a very smart, very strong woman. I very much enjoyed Nora’s fight to find a place for herself and her refusal to accept the subservient role that seems to be all that’s available to her in this new and strange world. Assuming there really is a sequel in the works, I look forward to seeing what happens next, knowing that Nora’s adventures have only just begun.
Title: The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic
Author: Emily Croy Barker
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley