The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic
Author: Emily Croy Barker
What I’m Talking About:
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic…I liked it, but I had some issues. It isn’t often that I come across a debut author in hardback anymore. I have to give props to Barker for coming up with a story that includes multiple worlds, fairies, demons, magicians, kings, princesses, knights, wizards, witches, dragons, and a doctoral candidate. With the current drift toward paranormal, this kind of fantasy doesn’t show up often in new releases. Despite its impressive length, coming in at 576 pages, it reads much more like an extended fairytale than a true fantasy on the scale of David Eddings’ Belgariad series, as an example. Even after finishing the book, I’m not exactly sure yet what The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic wants to be.
In my opinion, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is misnamed. That’s probably my first and biggest issue with the book; it set my expectations in one direction and then went in another. I liked main character Nora Fischer when she was a PhD candidate, working (or not working) on her thesis. Yes, she had some things to work out and yes, she was stalled, but I liked her infinitely better than the woman she became when she happened into an alternative world. At first glance, it feels a little like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. There is no doubt that Nora is a fish out of water, a “modern” woman in a medieval world, but unlike Twain’s Hank Morgan, the fact that she is different from the women and people around her doesn’t seem to gain her any kind of advantage for a full three hundred pages!
Told in four parts, part one will put off many readers. After the brief, but promising beginning where we find out that Nora’s boyfriend of several years had dumped her to marry someone else, I felt sympathy. I wanted her to pick herself up and show him what he was missing, what he had thrown away. I wanted her to be the thinking woman of the title. In section one, Nora was the antithesis of a thinking woman. For a hundred pages Barker tells us a story rather than showing us a story. In elementary verbiage…this happened, and then this happened, and then that. Detailed descriptions are minimal. After a strong start, this section felt very flat to me. In Barker’s defense, I believe that was intentional because we find that Nora is not herself for magical reasons. Unfortunately, many readers will not bother to get past this section. I almost didn’t—but I had a review to write.
Part two is a definite improvement over the first. We get to experience more of this feudal world, rather than being told about it. Even though Nora’s circumstances have changed, she’s still a woman of no family, title, fortune, land, or unique beauty in a chauvinistic society that does not particularly value women for anything else. There is some subtle plot revelation going on, and the writing improves dramatically, but the “thinking woman” still fails to emerge. She allows life to happen to her. The most significant thing she seems to have brought with her into this alternate world is her literary knowledge. There is a lot of name dropping and literary references, many of which only a literary professor would know without looking them up, especially the multiple poetry references. These references do become salient to the plot eventually. It is not for another two hundred pages that Nora finally—finally starts to become interesting again. We also become acquainted with the magician Aruendiel, Nora’s protector. Some of his back story is disclosed, but because the book is told primarily from Nora’s point of view, by the end of the section I didn’t feel like I knew him much better than I did at the beginning.
By parts three and four, not only is the reader begging for Aruendiel’s background, probably the only really interesting character in book, but Nora is too. One sleepy night prior to the New Year, when all work is forbidden, he acquiesces only a little and begins to tell his story. By the end of nearly six hundred pages we STILL do not have his full back story or even a solid conclusion. Although I cannot find anything to indicate there will be a book two, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic clearly indicates that the story is not yet finished. Not even close. When I got to the end there was a What?! That’s it? reaction rather than any sense of completion. It felt like the story was already too long so someone thought it was a good place to take a break.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic was presented to me as a romance. In the course of the story, there is talk of attraction, crushes, marriage, sex, and mistresses, but very little discussion of actual love. There is no graphic sex, in fact, there is nothing remotely romantic going on except in Nora’s head. Even that she works hard to tamp down. It is not targeted to a YA audience, but I would be comfortable letting my teen read it.
3 stars: Liked it, but I had some issues – recommend (B)
About the Book:
Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman. During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty. Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.
Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.
Release Date: August 1, 2013
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Format(s): Hardcover (576 pgs), e-book
Book Source: Publisher
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic