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Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

i.e. one of the best books I have read in ages

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

I love fantasy books. The fantasy genre is one of my favourites and I especially like ones with wizards, medieval vibes and plenty of cool places. I tend to prefer ones that are usually filed under epic or high fantasy – the Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones/The Name of The Wind type of books.


But I’m finding that it’s increasingly difficult to actually find good, contemporary fantasy fiction. There are some truly terrible fantasy books out there. If I have to read another poorly written and poorly constructed book with ridiculous characters I’ve seen about 76 times already, I will legit hit someone over the head with my Kindle.


Thankfully, Emily Croy Barker has come to the rescue with her debut novel, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. It was published by Penguin in 2013, so it’s not super recent but it definitely is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

What it’s about

Basically, it’s about Nora, a postgraduate student who is having a terrible time with her PhD, who accidentally gets herself kidnapped by fairies. Everything seems fine until she meets a raggedy-looking wizard – and then the adventure unfolds.

It’s really hard to write about this without spoilers.

Why you’ll like it

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic has been described as a fairy-tale gone wrong and that really is a good summary. It’s got everything from Great Gatsby-esque partying, medieval castles, a demon in a tiger’s body and your typical fantasy style romance (we’re talking brooding magician, solitary magician who has a heart of stone but is actually a legend – you know the type). Underlying, however, is the familiar fairy-tale tropes. It’s a bit of reversed-Cinderella meets Hans Christian Anderson in a lot of ways and Barker borrows from a lot of different literary traditions (in a good way) both consciously and unconsciously.

The storyline probably isn’t the main reason I love this book so much. I know I said I was kinda sick of terrible clichéd fantasy books and TWGRM doesn’t escape the cliché entirely. There are times when you know what will happen. There are bits that you’ve definitely read before in other books.

But I think some of those clichés are excusable. Firstly, it’s clear that Croy is obviously borrowing from classics by Jane Austen and the Brontës – she practically tells us so through Nora’s translation of Pride and Prejudice and her literary background. The fact that Aruendiel resembles Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester is certainly not accidental I think. Other tropes or clichés, like the bad fairies or Nora’s slight damsel-in-distress vibes, don’t really detract from the novel either. I think they’re used purposefully and artfully – Croy is such an accomplished writer that I don’t believe she’d be so careless or uninventive to use a cliché without thought.

And it’s the writing that I loved best about this novel. I genuinely think she’s one of the best writers I’ve read recently. She handles some incredibly complex and disorientating scenes so amazingly and the opening section of the novel is beautifully surreal. To be honest, I thoroughly recommend reading the novel if only to read the opening. But overall, the quality of her work is just wonderful.

My main issue is that there’s no timescale for when the next novel is due to be published.

What about you? Have you read The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic? What did you think?

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