book reviews by Althea

The Glass Magician – Charlie Holmberg **

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After reading the first book in this series, I felt that there were some promising aspects to the story and some, well, not-so-promising aspects. Unfortunately, I felt that this got worse, not better.

In ‘The Paper Magician’ one issue I noted was that the villain was completely without depth – she had neither motivation, background, or a clear agenda. I thought that in the second book, we might find out more about her. No. Instead, we continue with two of her henchmen as villains – who are ALSO completely depthless and motivation-less. In addition, the head evil psychopath is a Scary Foreigner! He’s Indian! He says a word in Hindi! Now, it is entirely possible to have an excellent villain who is ‘foreign.’ But when said character has NO character traits other than being ‘dark’ in appearance and a sadistic psychopath, AND when there are no other ‘foreign’ characters in the whole book AND when the character’s first appearance is immediately predicated by a very weird and awkward moment where Our Hero Ceony sees him lurking across the street right after a bombing and says to herself, ‘well, I shouldn’t be suspicious of that man just because he looks foreign’ but then of course it turns out she SHOULD have suspected him – as she clearly DID – well, it gets problematic. Back in 1870, Jules Verne, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, did a far better job giving his Indian character believable resentments and motivations…

In addition to new villains, this story also gives Ceony a friend, Delilah. She is introduced with startling rapidity, and seemingly just for the purpose of illustrating some new types of magic. (Delilah is one of the Glass Magicians of the title). However, it turns out that Delilah is the redshirt here, so don’t get too attached – not that you were likely to.

Another of my major problems with the first book was the romance aspect. At the outset of this book, I was relieved to see that Mg. Emery Thane had not yet reciprocated Ceony’s crush on him, and was actually conducting himself in a professional manner. For a minute there, I thought we might actually get a very sensible plot progression about how sometimes crushes are inappropriate and unrequited! Alas, such was not to be. Instead, most of the way through the book, we get an abrupt, jarring scene from Mg. Thane’s POV (the rest of the book is all-Ceony, all-the-time) about how he’s been – with effort – trying to restrain himself from getting involved until Ceony graduates from her apprenticeship. Sigh. I suspect that the author listened to critics of the first book who said it seemed odd (and makes the romance even more inappropriate) that Ceony’s apparently never dated anyone before, because here, one throwaway line is inserted that she did have a high school boyfriend. No, that doesn’t ‘fix’ things.

Even so – the romance could be salvaged if I was really convinced by the author that these were two kindred souls. But what do we find out in this one POV scene where the master is talking about his student (who, incidentally, is shaping up to be a brilliantly talented, brave magician who shows remarkable insight and initative in apprehending dangerous criminals?) Well, he likes the facts that she’s cheerful, dedicated, beautiful, and most importantly, a good cook. I roll my eyes.

If that was the only scene where cooking comes up, I could let it slide. After all, it’s already been established that Ceony loves cooking and had considered culinary school if the magic thing didn’t work out. That’s all good. Except for the scene where she’s at another bachelor’s home, and his lack of gourmet cuisine elicits this: “Ceony determined the man needed to get married right away,” and she considers setting him up with her friend. The friend that’s also a magician. Because, although women can clearly be magicians, it’s also their job to cook for men. Ugh.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the casual, throwaway sexism involving clothing. OK, in the first book, we learn that Ceony was groped by a school administrator. (She dumps wine on him, causing her [she later discovers] to lose a scholarship, but never actually makes a complaint about it.) In this book, we learn that because of this incident, Ceony prefers to wear long skirts, as they’re harder to get a groping hand up. Seriously? The answer to sexual harassment is to wear long skirts?!?!?!? Yeah, someone in a position of power over you will totally be put off by the skirt. At other points in this book, we learn that Ceony believes that a knee-length skirt is shockingly short, and that the shortest acceptable skirt is mid-calf. This is also specifically tied in to whether one is a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ woman.

At this point, I felt like the setting in general began to be an issue. I know that some reviewers had an issue with it in the first book, pointing out how it didn’t feel ‘period’ or ‘English.’ For the first book, I gave all that a pass, just telling myself that it was in an alternate-world fantasy setting. However, this book makes it more specific – I could no longer ignore that this is explicitly supposed to be England at the end of the 19th century. The referenced skirt lengths simply do not match British fashion of this time period, OR cultural attitudes of the time.
It’s not just the skirts… it’s the guns. (and oh so much more).
It’s already been established that Ceony owns a gun. Here, she makes a comment that when she’s stressed out, she likes to go shooting. OK, at this supposed place and time period, an upper-class woman might have hunted with a gun. But it’s already been established that Ceony’s family is supposed to be poor. (Although, when we meet them, they seem like an American middle-class family in every way). And the gun attitude is just… yes, American, Conservative, Middle-Class. It jars the reader right out of the story. The amount of research the author did into the social issues and political divisions of England at the time: ZERO.

Oh, and then there’s a brief scene where we get magically transported to French-speaking Belgium – where everyone talks like they’re in a first-year French textbook. And… well, I am driven to provide a quote here:
…”she found another sign, this one reading “Zuydcoote un kilometre au sud-est.” She imagined “kilometre” meant kilometer, but she couldn’t piece together the rest.”
Bear in mind, Ceony is NOT supposed to be a mentally disabled character. Also, if you are one kilometer north-west of Zuydcoote, you are actually in the water off the coast of France, not in Belgium. Just saying.

However – all of these issues are mere quibbles compared to my main problem with the book. Which is the ending, and what it all hinges on. The author has created a world and a whole magical system based on the concept that every magician must choose one focus – one man-made substance to irreversibly ‘bond’ to. In this book, Ceony defeats the bad guys – who’ve been looking for a way to get around this limitation for decades, apparently – by accidentally figuring it all out. But what she figures out is painfully easy and obvious. I mean, it is literally the first thing someone would try. I found it totally unbelievable on a logical level. In addition, after establishing certain rules for your narrative, it makes no sense to just suddenly throw them all out the window.  It’s a step worse than deus-ex-machina – it’s more like: “Everything I told you earlier and asked you to suspend disbelief for? Forget it! It’s just not true!”

Well, this turned out to be quite an essay. I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Book provided by NetGalley and 47North. Many thanks, and, clearly, my opinions are solely my own.


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