22 August 2013

Review: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy BarkerYou know that kind of book that totally grabs you? I mean the kind that won't let you sleep, feed your family, or get your work done? They don't come around often, but when one does, you're completely under its spell. Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic entranced me from the start.

Forget what you think you know about magic or wizards or fantasy. Ignore those reviews that mention Harry Potter. Barker's world is like none you've ever encountered. And despite the dangers and the hardships, you'll likely wish you could find your way into the land of magic.

The premise of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic won't sound like much, and that's because the beauty of this novel is in the characters, the world, and the subtleties, which are not illuminated by a short summary.

Without giving anything away, the story centers around Nora Fischer, a struggling graduate student in English literature, who--like Alice--crosses a boundary between our world and another. There, Nora must rely on her own wits and love of learning to find a way to survive. It's not always easy to tell friend from foe, and sometimes those who are beautiful and kind are the worst of enemies.

Finally finding herself under the protection of Aruendiel, a practitioner of real magic, Nora's insatiable thirst for knowledge sets her on a path of apprenticeship. Although she learns the Ors language and begins to master magic, the pull of her own world is strong; if given the chance to return home, will she take it?

So what's so magical about The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic? Lots. On a gross level, Barker has created a believable world, with its own history, language, and creatures. The plot is a prefect mix of action and description, history and magic, love and friendship. But it's on the smaller levels that Barker really shines, especially in the character of Nora.

We've all read books in which a modern woman finds herself, perhaps as the result of time travel, in a repressive society. But unlike many such protagonists, Nora is not stupidly head-strong or unsympathetic to social norms. She is absolutely colored by her expectations in the modern world, but because she's smart and observant, she doesn't protest against (for example) the need to do hard work in order to keep a roof over her head. Naturally, she makes mistakes in decorum; however, despite being frustrated by her situation, she tries to take the time to learn how to behave in the society in which she now lives. Yes, there are some things she won't accept, but she's realistic and down to earth.

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic is not about waving wands and hiding from muggles. It's about how a twenty-first-century woman makes the transformation to a world in which the rules have changed and where looks can be dangerously deceiving. It's also a book about friendship, learning, thinking, family, and love as well as jealousy, infidelity, murder, and a deadly war. Oh, and there's also magic and the casting of spells.

Set aside a weekend to read Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic. Warn your family and friends. Once you start, there will nothing else in your life except Nora's adventures in a strange, new world. The novel was an Indie Next Pick for August 2013 and is a serious contender for my most memorable book of the year.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Recorded Books, 26 hr, 21 min), read by Alyssa Bresnahan, in just five days. I truly found it difficult to turn off my player. My full audiobook review will be available from AudioFile magazine, but let me say here that Bresnahan's performance is outstanding. Buy the audio; you won't be sorry.

Penguin USA / Pamela Dorman Books, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780670023660
Source: Review (both print and audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


JoAnn 8/22/13, 8:08 AM  

Listening to 26+ hours in 5 days says it all! I really need a book that totally grabs me ... it has been a dismal reading month.

Julie P. 8/22/13, 8:12 AM  

Holy moly! 26 hours. That would take me half a year to read!

rhapsodyinbooks 8/22/13, 8:36 AM  

Sounds good, actually. Usually I hate magic stuff, but this sounds maybe metaphorical enough...

Col (Col Reads) 8/22/13, 10:16 AM  

This sounds like an audiobook that might actually keep me on the treadmill for a while -- which would be a good thing!

Darlene 8/22/13, 10:18 AM  

Glad to hear you liked this one. It's on my wishlist of books I want to read but I think I'll do the audio instead now.

Anita 8/22/13, 10:25 AM  

In just 5 days...wow! I've got many audible credits....this might be $$ well spent. Thanks for the review.

bermudaonion 8/22/13, 11:04 AM  

I generally don't enjoy fantasy but your enthusiasm for this book makes me think I might like it too.

Vasilly 8/22/13, 12:23 PM  

Oh my God! Now I want to read this! I've seen this book everywhere and was even offered an early copy. I turned it down based on the cover. *sigh* Now I'm off to put a copy on hold.

Beth Hoffman 8/22/13, 12:44 PM  

Though fantasy isn't a genre I typically read, something about this one grabbed my attention from the get-go. I have it waiting on my shelf and hope to crack the spine soon!

Carol 8/22/13, 3:08 PM  

I'm not usually a fan of modern woman stuck in a different world/time, but this one sounds really good.

caite 8/22/13, 4:46 PM  

I am not usual a fan of books about modern women...

but a book that might keep me from falling asleep? that is saying something.

Carrie 8/22/13, 5:09 PM  

Can't wait to read this - fantastic review!

Kiirstin Maki 8/23/13, 2:06 PM  

This sounds amazing, and completely awesome. Also, thanks for the warning to ignore reviews mentioning Harry Potter: I tend to feel there's nothing worse than being predisposed to like/dislike something based on a comparison that doesn't really reflect the actual book. Frankly, now that I've read your review, I won't read any others until I get a chance to read the book, lest I gather too many impressions to colour my reading...

Daryl 8/26/13, 9:24 AM  

i read a review of this in the NY Times .. your review makes this much more appealing

Anastasia 8/29/13, 5:43 PM  

Yay, what a great review! I'm actually somewhere in the middle of reading this for myself-- I particularly like how Nora deals (is dealing) with societal differences and whatnot. It makes it a much more fleshed-out story, and it's nice to have a fantasy focused on things other than just magic (although that's fun too, of course).

And, yeah, no way is this an adult Harry Potter. It's more like The Magicians, only without the annoying college students.

Also, though, hey! I think it's the first of a series, right? Pretty sure I read that on Goodreads somewhere.

-- Anastasia @ Here There Be Books

Belle Wong 8/31/13, 12:09 PM  

This sounds like a great read! I'm torn now between the print and the audio.

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