Grad student Nora Fischer wishes desperately that her life could be different. She’s hit a major roadblock in her studies, with nothing new or fresh to pursue in her thesis work (something which her adviser seems a bit too willing to point out to her), and inspiration isn’t exactly forthcoming. Even worse, her long-time professor boyfriend--whom she’d sort of been expecting to get a ring from--has just dropped a bomb on her: he’s engaged to someone he met (and obviously, was seeing on the sly) recently, and “hopes she [Nora] understands”.
Sometimes wishes do come true, though... as Nora is about to find out, in Emily Croy Barker’s magically-delicious debut, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.
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The last thing Nora wants to do is pretend happiness during a girlfriend’s weekend wedding festivities, but she puts on a brave face and dutifully shows up at the mountain lodge where events are scheduled to take place. Sadly, the first night turns out as horribly as she’d feared--especially since her (newly-engaged) ex is also in attendance. So, waking up the next morning with the mother of all hangovers, Nora decides to take a hike (literally); she straps on some walking shoes and sets out to clear her head and get away from everyone.
Not even that goes her way, though, and after a little fall on the trail she becomes disoriented. Nothing looks quite right, but she figures if she follows the trail she’s found, at least it will take her somewhere.
Where it leads her is to an old graveyard, which--as fate would have it--is also be a portal into a parallel world (not that she realizes that for quite some time, however).
Continuing along the path, blissfully unaware of what’s just happened, Nora suddenly finds herself on the manicured grounds of a country estate bordering the woods. There, she runs into an elegant and gracious woman, Illissa, who welcomes her and offers hospitality.
Clearly thrilled to have a visitor, Illissa listens avidly to Nora as she (most uncharacteristically) pours her heart out to the other woman’s sympathetic ears. Illissa persuades Nora to stay the night; she has a huge house with plenty of room, and it just so happens she’s having a party that evening--surely the antidote for a broken heart. Nora, seeing no particular reason to hurry back (to attend a wedding she doesn’t feel like going to, anyway), agrees.
Illissa’s party turns out to be much, much better than the one Nora had gone to the previous night. Instead of being Ordinary Nora, she’s somehow transformed from a drab, depressed student into the life of the party... a beautiful, popular, and happy woman. She’s so happy, in fact, that she agrees to stay on a bit longer, and what follows is a whirlwind of fabulous parties and adoration (even a devastatingly-handsome and attentive new boyfriend) so satisfyingly perfect that in no time, she’s lost track of how long she’s been there or exactly what she’s supposed to be doing in her “real” life.
Until one day, that is, when cracks start to appear in the glamorous veneer of Nora’s fairy-tale life, revealing deception, ugliness, and some very evil intentions... and Nora finally begins questioning what she’s gotten herself into--and wondering how she can extricate herself from it. She’s a smart woman, without doubt, but nothing she knows or has learned in school could’ve prepared her for any of this; what’s needed is magic, real magic, to escape her suddenly-scary predicament.
As luck would have it, though, she actually met just such a practitioner one day (when she temporarily got separated from her merry little party at the edge of Illissa’s property). Unfortunately, the magician Aruendiel is a morose and prickly sort, who seems to think very little of Nora--and even less of her choice of “friends”. Getting herself rescued from the clutches of Illissa and her crowd is only the first of Nora’s obstacles; persuading a grumpy old magician to teach her enough magic to enable her to get back home where she belongs will be considerably harder to accomplish, in a place (and time) where everything is foreign and none-too-friendly.
Will magic even be enough... when she finds herself fighting a growing attraction, as well?
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The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is many things. It’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water story, plucking a perfectly-reasonable, modern woman and setting her down in the middle of a fairy tale (think no indoor plumbing and go from there for the downsides) already in full swing. It’s an intelligent look at how a normal adult would fare in that situation. (Does she always think/act smartly? No, but neither would you or I; we get to see her making some very poor choices and feeling sorry for herself before coming to grips with her new reality.) It’s also a grand and sprawling adventure... a mix of classic swords-and-sorcery with an epic, Harry Potter-esque journey, a smidgeon of Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and more than a touch of (the overall feel of) Deborah Harkness‘ A Discovery of Witches. In short, it’s a fabulously-well-written tale that takes its time (but without ever taking too long, as far as I’m concerned) getting where it wants to go.
What it isn’t--at least, not yet--is a sweeping romance (despite a frequent and delightfully-clever use of Pride and Prejudice); this story is a slow-burn on the love-connection front, which I appreciate--much better to let Nora get her head on straight and decide for herself what she really wants, than to let things just happen to her.
And that leads me to the final thing The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic isn’t: it isn’t a complete, stand-alone story; in the ending Barker makes it clear there’s more to come (so if that really bothers you, you may want to keep this on your TBR list until the sequel comes out). If you can handle the thought of a series, though, and you like your fantasy served up with a healthy dose of realism, this one’s a real gem and I loved every page. :)
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Merrily-Magical Mousies