The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg


The Plastic Magician

by Charlie Holmberg
May 15, 2018 · 47North
Science Fiction/Fantasy

I read this book in two days, partly because I remain very charmed by the world in which it is set, but also in part because the story itself speeds along from scene to scene, so it’s easy to read quickly. But that speed comes at the expense of emotional depth for the characters. I’m along for the ride happily, but I recognize what I’m missing.

I love the world, the magical system of this universe. There are specific types of magic, including Folding, or paper magic, and a new form, Polymaking, which is magical manipulation of plastic. People who train in the magical academies choose a speciality, bond with that material once they have been apprenticed to a magician who practices that same art, and then practice that form of magic until they retire.

In the first book (I skipped books 2 and 3 – yes, I know, I’m an irresponsible rebel and half of you are horrified. I’m sorry) the heroine, Ceony, apprentices to a paper magician named Thane. In this book, the fourth in the series, Alvie Brechenmacher has chosen plastic magic because it is the newest and there is the most to discover. (I also must admit that I had to look up her name because despite finishing this book a day ago, I couldn’t remember it at all.) Alvie is apprenticed from the US to a magician outside London, a married man who is a star among the Polymaking magicians. Unlike Ceony’s slowly building attraction to Thane, there is no romantic relationship between Alvie and Magician Praff.

As I made notes for this review, I realized that I had I built more into the emotional world of the characters than was present in the text. It reminds me a little of the old Sunfire romances, where a love triangle happens to a heroine set against the backdrop of a major historical event. Often with Sunfire historicals, the historical event or setting is the major point, and the characters take second billing to whatever was happening. To be fair, in the case of some Sunfires, like Jennie, which was about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a LOT was happening. But the history was the main point, and with this book, for me, the world in which the book is set was increasingly more interesting than the characters I was reading about within it.

Alvie’s apprenticeship begins at a rapid pace: she gets to work learning different spells, and she volunteers at a hospital where she meets a young woman who, following an accident, has had her hand amputated. Alvie, who is pretty focused on inventing a spell or inventing a new form of Polymaking, has the idea to build a functional prosthetic for her out of magical plastic. Inspired by her idea, Praff and Alvie begin work on it, obsessively experimenting at all hours, ignoring food and sleep, pursuing their next big discovery. Both Alvie and Praff are intensely cerebral people who focus on minute details and manage complex math and experimental ideas in their heads with ease. They’re a very good fit, and again, entirely platonic (thank heaven). Alvie’s romance is with Bennet, another young apprentice, a man who is becoming a Folder. He is apprenticed to a cranky, strict magician who doesn’t let Bennet have much freedom, but does sometimes allow him to borrow his Mercedes Benz. Alvie’s courtship with Bennet is perfunctory, lukewarm, and uneventful for the most part. This wasn’t a problem for me because I knew this was a fantasy story and not a romance per se.

But even within the boundaries of the fantasy genre, I was largely dissatisfied by the story itself.  Characters move through the plot as needed, appearing and disappearing after their purpose has been fulfilled. For example, Alvie is worried about leaving her parents behind in Ohio, but doesn’t mention them or think about them until it is time to journey home (through magic mirrors – I’d read a whole book about the mirror travel) at which point she mentions missing them and talking to them through poor mirror connections. The most interesting aspect of her parents as characters is the influence of her father on Alvie’s ambition. Alvie’s father is an inventor who co-created the lightbulb (but let Edison take the credit) and Alvie comes by her inventiveness from her father. But because she is fluent in both worlds, she also has a tremendous respect for technology and nonmagical invention, something that a lot of magician and magician-adjacent folks lack. Her appreciation of magical and nonmagical invention was one of the most endearing things about her.

Otherwise, everyone was shallowly drawn. The characters were mostly sketches wandering around a more developed, fascinating world. I didn’t feel a great deal of emotional engagement or connection with anyone, though I did admire the heroine’s impressively fierce and unapologetically ambitious intellect.

There is a mystery to be solved as to who might be sabotaging Praff and Alvie’s work, and who might be breaking into Polymaker laboratories and stealing things. The limited number of characters meant that anyone who appeared past the midpoint of the book was there for a scene to operate as an accessory to the plot. That limited cast also meant that the villain who is causing trouble for the Polymakers is pretty obvious from the start, and their motivations are revealed to be petty and mostly ego based, and therefore rather unsatisfying. The actions seem much too severe and weighty for the expressed motivation behind them.

The use of magic to build a prosthetic arm was very interesting, but the ways in which Ethel (Bennet’s sister) would use said prosthetic are very underdeveloped. She too showed up when necessary to provide feedback and a purpose to Alvie’s experiments. I also wasn’t sure how exactly the magical arm worked, and what Ethel did to make it move on her command. I do know she was delighted with it, and its invention sealed both Alvie and Praff’s reputations as major players in the limited world of the plastic magicians. I also felt that Ethel’s presence was tinged with the Inspirationally Disadvantaged trope, as if her role in the story was mostly as purpose-driven inspiration for Alvie.

There are little elements of the world that I found so charming and interesting, and wished there had been more about them. The magical mirrors used for transportation and long distance communication, as I mentioned, and also the Mimic spell. Folders can enchant paper and one manner in which Folders cam communicate long distance is to place a Mimic spell on a paper and rip it in half. Whoever has one half can write on their sheet, and the person who has the other half will see their writing appear in real time:

At one point they were discussing English dog breeds when a few drops of water from Alvie’s hair pattered against the page. They must have shown up on Bennet’s end, since he asked, Alvie, are you crying? 

Oh no, she’d replied. Just got out of the bath.

To which he was silent for several minutes until Alvie asked, “Isn’t there a town called Bath over there? And he went on to describe it. 

Instant penpal paper and a hint of sexual tension? Yes, please! Alas, there is not much more of the Mimic paper, and even less of the tension. But like the mirrors, I could read a massive book about the uses of Mimic-spelled paper.

The story isn’t the part I’m still thinking about now that I’ve finished the book. I really like the magical world this series is set within, and I like that magic and nonmagic inventions exist together, and that magical and nonmagical people coexist, too. I wish the stories of the people within this book had been as compelling.

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