August 2013

Through a portal to a dangerous world

By Emily Croy Barker
Review by
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The bouncy title of this epic first novel sets up expectations of a certain type of book—maybe one with a pink stiletto or a sparkly diamond ring on the cover. Think again. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is a medieval fairy tale with a deliciously dark twist: The heroine is a modern-day woman trapped in an alternate, magical world.

Nora Fischer’s dissertation is going nowhere fast—and her love life is in even worse shape—when she stumbles onto a portal to Semr, an archaic kingdom where magic is in the air and ideas about women’s roles are very different. Nora is enchanted (literally) by a woman named Ilissa, who quickly marries Nora off to her son to produce an heir. But her new family is not what it seems, and Nora flees to the protection of Aruendiel, a reclusive magician whose rough exterior hides a mysterious and painful past. Soon Nora has become Aruendiel’s apprentice, learning basic spells that come in handy when she and Ilissa meet again. Eventually, Nora will have to decide whether to make her way back home, or stay in a world she’s amazed to realize she has come to love.

Emily Croy Barker is the executive editor of The American Lawyer magazine, where she oversees coverage of things like antitrust mass actions in Europe and the population of minority lawyers at big law firms. One can only imagine the fun she had writing this soapy, snappy tale. I’d be a sucker for any book in which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice played a prominent role (Nora translates that classic novel chapter by chapter for Aruendiel), but The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic stands on its own merits as a thoroughly enchanting read. While Nora and Aruendiel may be more Heathcliff and Catherine than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Barker has spun a clever, lush yarn that is uniquely its own.

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