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

cover of Thinking Woman;s Guide to Real MagicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is harrowing and lovely – at times dreamlike and at times gritty.  This is one of the few portal fantasies that deeply explores the ramifications of being transported to an alternate world in terms of mundane things.  There’s magic and adventure and romance, but much more time is spent on matters such as how to get boots that don’t leak, and the importance of knowing the nuances of language instead of just vocabulary.  For this reason, the book is slow-paced, but also thoughtful and interesting.

Nora is a graduate student whose thesis on John Donne is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend dumps her, her thesis advisor is poised to do the same, she’s got no self-esteem or backbone, and she wanders into the woods on a walk and finds herself in faerie.  Suddenly she’s beloved and special and going to wonderful parties every night.  She knows nothing makes any sense but it doesn’t seem matter, and the Prince of Faerie wants to marry her.  It would be perfect if she could just shake the feeling that something is not right.

The book takes it’s time with Faerie, and this part is dreamlike and very slow-paced.  The way the author balances the tone between happy dream and terrible nightmare is adroit – you know that kind of dream where you’re afraid it’s about to become a nightmare?  Like there’s a creepy thing at the very edge of the dream so even though the dream is happy you are still afraid?  That’s what Nora’s experience is like.

The book really gets interesting when Nora leaves Faerie.  She’s not in her world – she’s in the land of Ors, which is somewhat medieval in nature but nothing that is too closely paralleled with our history.  This part is also slow-paced, as Nora struggles to make a home for herself in a place where she has no marketable skills, only rudimentary ability with language, no social skills to speak of (people often complain that she ignores propriety) and no status (she’s a woman without husband, property, money, or family).  The moment when Nora, who’s spent her life studying literature, realizes that she’s illiterate in the language of Ors, is heartbreaking.

What’s great is that this part of the book is well-thought out, and it gives Nora a chance to shine.  We meet her at a low point in her contemporary American life, and in Faerie, her intelligence is forcibly muted (she’s basically roofied the whole time).  But in Ors, she has nothing to rely on but her brains, and she builds confidence as she figures out how to survive.

Meanwhile Nora is under the protection of a magician, and they begin studying Nora’s copy of Pride and Prejudice together.  The magician is a total jerk – rude, arrogant, contemptuous of Nora because of her status, and yet gradually more respectful of her as she shows talent and tenacity.  Could there be some kind of parallel here?  HMMMM?  Note:  I never liked this guy but he’s the kind of hero who is pure catnip to some readers – dark, tortured, and angsty.  There’s an event in his past that I think makes him irredeemable.  Yet I loved watching Nora stand up to him over and over again and I look forward to reading more about him in the upcoming sequel.

This book is being marked as fantasy chick-lit.  I have no problem with fantasy chick-lit (other than the name “chick-lit” which makes me want to claw off my own face) but I don’t feel that description fits.  This is a pretty in-depth, serious fantasy.  I love the way there are dragons and ice monsters but also problems with leaking boots.  Nora spends more time peeling apples than she does casting spells (although once she starts spell-casting it’s pretty awesome).  I found this book easy to put down but a pleasure to pick up again.  There’s a sequel on the way.  Will Nora and the cranky magician get through the second half of Pride and Prejudice?  Will she ever slay that damn dragon?

Emily Croy Barker’s website has a reading guide that includes maps, a list of poems quoted in the book, recipes, and a playlist.