Paper Mage

Posted by : atcampbell | On : January 6, 2004

Paper Mage by Leah Cutter

Ten people attended this discussion and one person emailed comments. Everyone read some part of the book; only half the group finished it. This is the author’s first novel.

Set during China’s Tang Dynasty, the novel is centered on a young girl’s struggles with duty, magic, warring groups, dragons, and family demands. Despite being hired to protect a caravan with her magical skills, Xiao Yen does not operate from a position of power. She might win in combat against a rat dragon but she still isn’t accepted by her employers.

Everyone was pleased to read a fantasy which didn’t use medieval Europe as its source material. One person characterized the book as a Western style novel with a Chinese setting, which made it both fresh and accessible.

We were intrigued with the concept of magical power having many branches controlled by a mixture of talent and concentration. The author handled the protagonist’s training and implementation skillfully, giving attention to even the sensory aspects of magic. All in all the foundation of the novel was solid and well researched. The culture and settings flowed with the characters, rather than being delivered in the groups’ pet peeve of info-dumps.

One reader waxed enthusiastic about the book saying it would appeal to all ages, and that she would recommend it to anyone. She liked a protagonist who had problems of all types: being different, family and social pressures, self esteem, travel woes, fickle luck; these combined to “make a human out of a hero.” There were many lessons to be learned by the heroine, including that of accepting her own differences.

The novel stayed true to its cultural time period, and the difficulties for a woman, especially one working outside the typical woman’s sphere. Life is not easy for Xiao Yen and anyone expecting a more modern heroine will be disappointed. One reader felt the novel read like a YA novel until the heroine is raped. Another commented there was too much oppression and not enough adventure.

For other readers, Xiao Yen’s struggles and survival were another one of the fantasy elements since the novel was set in a culture where the odds of that happening are a million to one.

The structure of the novel worked better for some people than others. The narrative thread bounced between time periods, a technique that broke the book apart and led to a drop in tension. With each chapter the reader had to stop and reposition his/her brain to a different time period in the character’s life. Others were confused for a bit over the prologue and how much time had passed since the story began. Some people appreciated the character list while others found it a necessary distraction since there was so much of which to keep track.

We agreed that it was an excellent first novel and are looking forward to her next book.

–Judy Strange