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  • Hetty Crane

Review of "The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic" by Emily Croy Baker

I had to think about this for a week or so before I could write a review. I came across this book while looking for a good fantasy with decent prose and not much violence. To be honest, I could not put the book down, and there are many so called 'better' books I have put down very quickly for one reason or another. But this story caught my fancy. I was mainly curious as to what the author would do with the story, which initially had a good portal fantasy premise. Having been an English major myself I was intrigued that the heroine, Nora, was a grad student trying to complete a thesis and thought this a promising start. The heroine's knowledge of English lit does play a part in the story later on, but how it was used was, for me, a bit of a stretch. At any rate, it was the initial hook that pulled me in.

When Nora stumbles through the portal into the alternate world / universe and falls in with the Fey, well and good, it seemed fun - until of course we discover that the Fey in this world are rather monstrous and treat the heroine quite brutally. At this point the story is a lot less fun and I almost put the book down, despite knowing that the world of faerie can be a brutal and violent place according to folklore. This alternate world is not the world of Oberon and Titania and their relatively harmless revels.

But my curiosity was piqued and so I carried on to the part where Nora is rescued by a powerful magician and enemy of the fey, and at this point the story got more interesting as Croy Barker extends and fleshes out the creation of her magical medieval world, which is a staple of the fantasy genre. Croy Barker 's magicians owe a great deal to J.K. Rowling, of course, and also to other giants of fantastic literature, writers like Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Leguin and Susanna Clarke. The rules of magic in this alt world are well thought out, and the kinds of spells and curses she details are full of imaginative invention, and even quite humorous at time. The way she alludes to a body of written treatises, histories of magic or spell books by countless magicians of that world's past ingeniously creates the semblance of a whole culture, something like Susanna Clarke's history of English magic. For me this was the best part of the book, and I quite applaud Croy Barker's wonderful inventiveness. But by two thirds of the way into the story, I found it was a little over done (the poetry eating ice demon) and somewhat tedious at certain moments.

I have read other reviews where people have got fed up with the characters of heroine and hero, Nora and the magician Arundiel respectively, and I can see why they are so critical. Neither character is particularly appealing, but I think that is partly due to the difficulty of creating a medieval culture / society where women have almost no rights, are repressed to the point of being chattel, and this is similar to Earth's cultural history. There are some interesting observations to be made about this kind of patriarchal culture (which we are still living in) and Croy Barker does make a few - the fact that the general populace, and women in particular are illiterate, and that their opportunities for happiness and success are severely limited: ie making a good marriage, like in our own historical culture, (in particular Jane Austen's world, which the author seems to want to refer to by having a copy of Austen's Pride & Prejudice carried about by Nora), seems to be their only avenue of escaping drudgery. This creates conflict for the heroine, who, from a more advanced culture (shall we say for the sake of argument) is affected by these constraints, and affects them in her turn. So I was not overly concerned that Nora was not feminist enough in this patriarchal world, and I can't quibble about the ways in which her feminism fails her; it seemed to me that Croy Barker was trying to explore this situation, what it would be like for a contemporary woman to survive in a medieval patriarchy, trying to become literate and acquire a profession, basically trying to survive while completely dependent on the munificence of the male benefactor.

Nor was I overly concerned as many readers apparently are, that the hero, Arundiel, had murdered his pregnant wife, and that Nora trusts him anyway, and falls in love with him, despite his advanced age and boorish manners. I am guessing that in the sequel we will discover that he in fact did not murder the wife, but somehow nobly took the blame for her death to preserve her reputation or some such deus ex machina/ strategem to explain why Nora trusts him despite this knowledge about his past. (I suppose this is the parallel to Darcy's treatment of Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, but it is a rather clumsy parallel, if it is intended that way.)

All in all I quite enjoyed this book, despite being aware of its shortcomings. The characters are a little flat, but it is all in good fun and it was interesting to see Croy Barker attempt this portal fantasy and create this world of magic and magicians.

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