The Plastic Magician, Charlie N. Holmberg (47North 978-1503951778, $24.95, 225pp, hc) May 2018.
Returning to the world of her Paper Magician novels, author Charlie Holmberg takes readers along on the trials and tribulations of Alvie Brechenmacher, aspiring Plastic Magician. There is a journey far from home! Great magical achievements! A smidgeon of romance! A dastardly villain! A battle to save life, limb, and reputation! A robbery! A car! A picnic! It’s all very Jane Austen meets Nicola Tesla meets Gail Carriger at her whimsiest and it is thoroughly – thoroughly – delightful. The Plastic Magician (which can be enjoyed as a standalone novel), is a tonic for all that is weighing upon your readerly heart and soul. Take a seat and fall deep into this world; you won’t regret it.
Alvie Brechenmacher is a gifted mathematician whose world is grounded in the magical manipulation of plastic. Her appointment as apprentice to the world’s top Polymaker means she has to leave her family in Columbus, Ohio for London, but it is an opportunity that no aspiring Polymaker can resist. Alvie moves through life in a dedicated and almost oblivious manner; she is single-minded in her focus on her craft and has little time for social niceties. She is acutely aware that as a woman, in order to succeed in her chosen field, she must be determined on every level. But, in keeping with most historical novels (fantasy or not) centered on a young woman, Holmberg writes of Alvie’s fashion choices (pants – which manage to be both sensible and outrageous), her struggles with finding a hair stye that fits her needs (sensible but also surprising in its simplicity) and her almost complete lack of awareness about conversational etiquette. This gets her into a bit of trouble sometimes, but Alive is all about perseverance, and at the end of the day, her impressive polymaking talent, and willingness to consider unconventional solutions to stubborn problems, carries her through any awkwardness.
At the center of The Plastic Magician is the upcoming Discovery Convention, the opportunity for various magicians to showcase their latest and greatest achievements. Through an unlikely friendship forged at a local hospital, Alvie and her mentor are hard at work on a project to revolutionize the development of artificial limbs. A rival is eager to know what the pair are working on and his machinations to take credit for their accomplishments propel most of the plot along. The drama surrounding the villain and whether he will or will not be successful is only part of the story, though; the world and character building in this novel are what truly keep the narrative humming and Alvie herself is so charming that she lights up every single page all on her own.
Like any of comedy of manners, The Plastic Magician is full of moments both cringe worthy and heartwarming. As Alvie’s determination to make a great polymaking leap rapidly becomes an obsession, there is also the surprise of developing romantic interest from a paper apprentice and her evolving friendship with her mentor. Alvie’s constant pushes against societal expectations for her gender are also very enjoyable to witness, and her interactions with the various other women who populate the story, in parts large and small, lend the book its light Austen-esque flair. The world building might be where Holmberg excels the most of all, however. She is so convincing in her alternate London that not only does it all seem plausible, but readers will definitely want to linger in its environs and revisit it in any capacity. This makes the book a perfect escape for teen readers eager for relief from the false and forced angst of so many YA titles. They will surely embrace Alvie moments after making her literary acquaintance and, having met her, they will not want to let her go. (Here’s hoping they will not have to!)
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2019 issue of Locus.
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