This book had most of the right elements—the main character being transported from our world to another one, magic, a woman standing up for herself and trying to change her circumstances, the importance of literacy and education—but somehow it didn’t capture me as much as I thought it would.
One of my frequent complaints about books set in other worlds is that these other worlds replicate ours so faithfully in so many of the manifestations of power and oppression. Baker’s alternate world is no exception: in it, women are subordinate to men, the poor are hungry and overworked and ill, and the characters are all presumed white (as becomes obvious when much is made of a Black woman from a land far, far away). I guess I’m just tired and bored of finding myself in the same old feudal society, as if there is something romantic and adventurous about a world where there is so much misery and despair and fixed hierarchy.
I did appreciate how desperate the protagonist was to learn the language of the world she found herself in, and especially to learn to read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be illiterate. Sure, I had to learn Dutch when I lived in Holland, but it’s not like I was deprived of English-language books while I was learning. It was hard for me not to have full comprehension of the world around me during that time, but to not have been able to read anything at all would have been awful.
The miscommunication aspects of the heterosexual almost-relationship between the protagonist and the love interest were annoying. This story has been done so many times. The guy is gruff and even mean at times, but we are given to understand that this reflects his attempts to deny his own attraction to Nora. Give me a break. Let’s have a love interest who is open about his feelings and knows how to communicate them, for a damn change. Also, Nora’s hesitancy to act on her attraction is irritating, but understandable, given that she is almost completely dependent upon this guy for her food, shelter, and protection. Oh, that story again.
There was one important character who was lesbian, which I would have appreciated more had it not been the same character who was Black…. and the same character who was was the only powerful woman who wasn’t also evil. It seemed like all the tokens got shoved into one character to tick off a diversity checkbox, right down to the fact that her complicated name is the only one that other characters with complicated names tended to have difficulty pronouncing. Although the character herself is one of my favourites in the book, so go figure.
I’m also not a big fan of Faerie, and also not a big fan of having “bad” people be physically ugly, deformed, and animal-like. The equation of physical beauty with goodness and trustworthiness really burns my ass.
The depth and complexity of the magic in the book was interesting. There wasn’t a lot of detail, but the allusions to different forms of magic and fields of study made it seem like a vast and involved concept full of specialties and subtleties, rather than a simple undifferentiated blob of “magicky stuff.”
All in all, it was not an amazing book. The main character, Nora, is not as much of a “thinking woman” as the title would suggest. Her learning about magic would have been interesting if it was covered more in depth. Lots of plotlines were left kind of dangling, or wiggling around pointlessly. A lot of the events and developments felt rather superficial. The thing is, there were lots of really good ideas in there! The writer could have followed some of those trails into the dark to see what would happen. It kind of felt like a book written to a strict outline. Not that there is anything wrong with working that way, of course, but it just felt too pre-planned. As if the fascinating little extras didn’t get developed because it had been decided in advance there was no room for them.
The ending was somewhat abrupt but left room at the end for a sequel. If Baker comes out with one, I will probably read it. Despite my complaints, I did enjoy the book more than I disliked it, and I understand that it was Baker’s first foray into book-length fiction. If this is a first try, I would be interested to see what she does with more experience and confidence.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.