The Paper Magician, the first book in the series, started strong, but soon bogged down. This second book retains Holmberg’s strong writing skill, but falls short in plotting and storytelling.
The first book introduced a not-very-credible romance, and unfortunately this sequel doubles down on it. Holmberg largely discards the interesting magic system that drew me to the book, in favor of what feels like a young-teen crush, as told by a twenty-year old. I’ve got nothing against romance novels, but I’d have liked to see the story offer more. Even when there’s a sudden and jarring shift to mentor Emery’s point of view, we learn little new about him, despite the story’s intense focus on what he really feels.
Much as the Harry Potter series is really more a young person’s adventure story than a fantasy story, the Paper Magician series is more a teenage romance than steampunk alternate history. The magic system, initially so promising, is reduced to simple tricks, never really explained. As with Potter, the spells are largely cast with a single word and some preparation – spells that anyone could do without much training, calling into question why there is such an elaborate training and apprenticeship program.
The governance of the magical world is similarly confusing. Choice of a type of magic is built up as a critical and personal choice, yet Ceony was forced (it’s never clear how) to choose paper. She has graduated, but it still subject to the decisions of her former teacher. She’s apprenticed to a master magician, but the former teacher seems to control the apprenticeship as well.
In short, what at first appeared to be a very promising series about magic has dumbed down into a constant internal “he loves me, he loves me not” dialogue, punctuated by the brilliant apprentice and cook casting random spells. With endless status updates about her braid (which plays no important role whatsoever).
All in all, this book is hard to recommend. If you’re a fan of romance novels, feel free. If you’re more interested in a consistently-built world, or in novel magic, look elsewhere. I personally won’t be going on to the third in the series, because while a somewhat interesting new magic idea was introduced at the end of this book, I feel certain that the coming focus will be on a romantic setup that was predictable from the first chapter of book one. However, Holmberg certainly has talent, and I hope she applies it to something sturdier in the future.