Random Epiphanies

Book Review: ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic’ by Emily Croy Barker

Image via Amazon.
Image via Amazon.


I bought this book for four reasons:

  1. Finding this book (and its unusually bright cover) in the usually snooty Literature section of the bookstore,
  2. The blurb from the amazing Kelly Link at the back,
  3. Finding out that the author’s day job is that of a journalist,
  4. And the summary stating that this would be a book about a smart, cynical grad school student caught up in a magical world a la Narnia, Oz, Fairyland.

I even read the first couple of paragraphs in the store itself and thought, wow, looks like it’s off to a good start, even if it’s a little slow–and there are 560+ pages!

But, to my disappointment, the novel doesn’t deliver after that good start. It gets exciting when the protagonist, Nora, literally walks into another world, but the things that happen to her from then on made me want to facepalm in secondhand embarrassment for her.

Nora is the thinking woman of the title. Even though she’s stuck in a rut with regard to her English postgraduate thesis, the fact is, she’s made out to be pretty smart, if somewhat dense in the romance area (she was still kinda pining for her ex-boyfriend, who is going to marry someone else in a few months. He invites her to the wedding and she rightfully gets upset, at least). She adores Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book that becomes a literal plot point, and idolizes Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but she’s not even half as sharp as the former.

Case in point: during a weekend wedding, she immediately gets caught up in the glittering world of the Faitoren, the queen of which, Illisa, regales her with illusions of parties from glamorous eras from her world (like the Hollywood Golden Age). Nora even gets engaged to, marries, and has the child of smooth bastard Raclin, Illisa’s son. Yet things go downhill from there (like, near-murder and a miscarriage downhill, none of which psychologically affect her for long), and she’s rescued by the grim, cruel magician Aruendiel, who begrudgingly takes her in and eventually condescends to “teach” her some magic (not much teaching going on there, really). By the way, when Nora leaves the beautiful illusion of the fey world, she stumbles into another Medieval Europe analogue–complete with castles and pastures and poor peasants, but with magic thrown in.

The first 300-400 pages felt like the author was feeling her way around the world just as Nora was, so not much goes on there except to parse out bits of Aruendiel’s history as Nora falls in love with him. She also falls for him despite the fact that he is, oh, I dunno, 180 years old, half-dead, killed his first wife, and treats her like a simpleton–which she is, considering how halfway through the book, she sees Ilisa again and literally walks right into her arms. Or she would have, if Aruendiel hadn’t saved her–and despite being a simpleton, he also falls for her. I can’t even.

And that ending. You’re warned somewhere that this is the first book in a trilogy, kinda forget it as you plod through the serviceable but ultimately pointless prose (I mean, I did keep reading ’til the end), and then get smacked by the fact of the trilogy at the tail-end of the book.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic wanted to be a lot of things: portal fantasy, epic magical war story, Pride and Prejudice romance, contemporary romance novel. Perhaps it is all those things, and I may have missed a few. But I feel like a better job could have been done in stitching all those together and cutting off so much excess.

Also, it boggles me that Amazon categorized the book under Horror > Occult. There was nothing scary about it (except for the horrifying way Nora kept getting herself into messes that could have been avoided if she stopped to think for a bit), and I am a huge scaredy-cat.


What do you think?

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