Paper Mage

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Leah R. Cutter

Published: 2003

Reviewed: 2005-10-11

Publisher: Roc (Penguin Books)

This book had a hell of a surprise for me at the end. No, you don't
need to worry about any spoilers---the surprise was a bibliography,
which you don't normally see in standard paperback novels. In
retrospect, however, I was unsurprised, given the loving detail that
Ms. Cutter put into her depiction of (a slightly fantastic) ancient
China. Maybe I should have known it immediately from the back blurb,
which mentions that the novel takes place in the Tang dynasty. That
much specificity promises either serious knowledge or a serious
bullshitter, and Ms. Cutter is no bullshitter.

As it happens, another project I've been working on has had me
learning quite a bit about Chinese culture and history, particularly
the various mysticism and magic. Sometimes it's bizarre and
befuddling to a poor westerner like myself (Why do Chinese vampires
hop? I suppose it's no wierder than our consistent mislabelling of
Frankenstein) but mostly it fits together into a comfortable web of
ideas, well worn and smoothly fitting with a billion re-tellings.

Ms. Cutter takes traditional ideas of jing, qi, gods, and dragons and
pushes them just a little bit to make a fantastic reality. The main
character, Xiao Yen, is a practitioner of origami magic. The shapes
she folds must almost hold life before she infuses them with some of
her own qi to animate them. Other systems of magic dance around the
reader, half explained, half inferred. And none of them have
fireballs or mind control or other things typically seen in fantasy

As "Paper Mage" progresses, we read two parallel story lines that
elaborate on the untenable position of Xiao Yen, caught between the
Confucian dictums of family and the tradition-breaking role her aunt
has thrust her into. There are great and important events that she
must take part in, and at times the book becomes surprisingly stark
and brutal. Ultimately, however, it is a coming of age story, plain
and simple, and all the rest is merely the frame.

I like that in a book, when the characters stay at human scale, even
as they are involved in things much bigger. When Xiao Yen does
something heroic, perhaps even legendary, the impact is the reverse of
what one would think: she is traumatized by the conflict between what
she had to do and her Buddhist beliefs. And that's when the story
really starts to get good.

"Paper Mage" isn't a profound book, and it isn't an incredible example
of craftsmanship or art, but it's a familiar story you've never heard
before. You can slip it on like an old comfortable pair of shoes,
sink down inside it and empathize for a while.