the thinking woman's guide to real magic

Last summer I was reading Beth Fish Reads’ blog (you’ll remember, she does the wonderful Weekend Cooking meme I participate in), and I saw her review of Emily Croy Barker’s debut, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.  She was head over heels for the book, so I (naturally) went searching for it on my local library’s website.  No go.  I requested it be purchased for the collection, please and thank you.  My archived email informs me that my wish was fulfilled on August 1, 2013 (thanks Arlington County Libraries!).  Of course I then forgot all about it in a flurry of reading Irish books, and didn’t get around to it until this week.  Well!  I have now rectified my misdoings and I agree with Beth Fish entirely: The Thinking Woman’s Guide for Real Magic is the sort of book you fall in love with.  

the thinking woman's guide to real magic by emily croy barker book cover
An imaginative story of a woman caught in an alternate world—where she will need to learn the skills of magic to survive

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.

Nora Fischer is an ordinary woman in our world.  She’s a former cook and a now-struggling grad student with relationship drama, insecurities and a passion for poetry.  After one too many misfortunes, she wishes that her life were different, in any way.  And that is how Nora finds herself in another world entirely.  At first, it’s everything she’s dreamed of – she’s the belle of the ball, life is grand, and the dashing Raclin wants her.  A voice deep inside tells Nora to see past illusion, and when she does, the wizard Aruendiel offers her a home.  In his household, she’ll need every scrap of determination and intelligence to survive and learn magic, for this new world is a hard one – much harder than it originally seemed.

Heroine Nora is intelligent, thoughtful, alert, stubborn (or I suppose you could say… persistent?), and loyal.  But she is also convincingly insecure about her looks, her chosen profession, and her love life (thus disqualifying her from the running for 'perfect' woman).  In all, Nora’s a typical educated, modern woman.  However, when placed in the context of a sword and sorcery fantasy, those qualities mark her out as different, as other.  In her new environment, Nora becomes something more: a fierce observer and survivor, an unraveler of secrets and histories, and the mistress of her own fate.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide is an impressive book, nevermind debut.  Barker plays with the notions of portal fantasy (where a character accesses another world through a gate or portal), the meaning and structure of magic, and the politics and inequality inherent in a patriarchal system.  Oh, and I left out one thing… it’s readable.  More than readable—un-put-downable!  I finished it (all 500+ pages!) in one day.  Whew!

Nora’s adventure is an exploration of a new (magical) world, and it’s also generally romantic.  My favorite bit?  When Nora began to learn elementary magic, and juxtaposed that with her daily translation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into Ors, the common language of her new world.  She shares both of these experiences with Aruendiel, the mysterious magician who has offered her protection.  The growth and accommodation between these two: it’s something!  *sigh*  I can’t wait for the sequel to see how Barker continues what could be a fantastic saga.

Now, about the magic and world-building: in some ways it is predictable (if you’ve read a fair amount of fantasy, you’ll see bits and pieces from many kinds of worlds and stories stitched into the fabric of the world), but it is no less satisfying for all that.  It’ll be a delight for anyone who escapes into magical literature and expects a strong female protagonist.  I think Barker was making an obvious parallel between Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Nora, but after finishing the book I jotted down a quick note about Eliza and Higgins from My Fair Lady. 

In any case, it’s an exceedingly well-written book.  And I promise you that’s not just my happy/romantical side talking.

Recommended for: fans of Sharon Shinn and Anne Bishop, and any adult who has pictured him- or herself making the (unlikely) trip to Narnia or Middle Earth.


Liviania said...

This sounds really good! (And I must admit, I've often pondered the difficulty of possibly ending up in a medieval fantasy world as a modern feminist.)

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Sounds fun, and I LOVE portal fantasy. I'm sad there isn't more portal fantasy out there.

Also extremely awesome: The ability to request that the library orders some book or other. I have only done it once, but it was a heady experience. They ordered it, like, THE NEXT DAY. Pretty soon it will be here and I will get to read it.

Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies said...

I really enjoyed this book - so glad you did too! I thought the writing was great, and the story itself was quite inventive and surprising. My only complaint was the open-ended ending -- I had no idea when I started the book that it would be a "to be continued", and that just makes me crazy. Oh well, I'll read the sequel whenever it arrives!

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