The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker
This book came recommended to me, I believe, as one having a strong female character. It looked intriguing and it had a vague look of being about witches, so I figured this would be exactly my cup of tea. I was surprised, actually, when starting to read it, that it was in fact a high fantasy book about a woman trapped in another dimension, in a medieval world where knights were either chivalrous or evil, wizards were named Areundiel and Euron the Wolf and the like, and probably sported pointy hats. And I have to say, the surprise was a pleasant one.
It's not that I haven't been reading high fantasy. I am a total high fantasy nerd. I am ecstatic over the extravagant popularity of books like The Game of Thrones. And I've been reading a lot of YA fantasy too, like Sarah J Maas' Throne of Glass series, where everyone is a magical faerie and also super sexy. I love it all. But Thinking Woman's Guide has a vintage feel, and I'm not sure I can entirely put my finger on why. If you had told me this was written in the '80s, I would have believed you. And yet there is such a modern feminist spin, where the damsel is damn well going to save herself, thank you very much, that I really enjoyed.
Nora is not having the best time in life - her grad career has stalled, her newly ex-boyfriend just invited her to his wedding. Things aren't going great, so when she stumbles upon a lavish estate where everything is beautiful and glamourous and everyone is so very interested in her, she's pretty into it. I get it, we've all been vulnerable. Her host, Ilissa, is her biggest fan, giving her a makeover to die for and has the most handsome son Nora just has to meet. Everything is perfect, except that she has been sucked into a magical world and is being prepared to be the sacrificial lamb, as it were, to a group of fairies, by bearing the child of their crown prince.
Nora has been enchanted to be stunningly beautiful, and ridiculously stupid, so that she sees everything as her captors wish her too, and she eagerly marries her suitor. There continues to be a very dull voice telling her how wrong all of it is, but every time she questions something, another spell is put on her until she very literally can barely speak. But she keeps fighting it, and things don't end well when she is attacked by her husband and miscarries a monster. She is rescued by a not-so-kindly wizard, who reluctantly puts her up in his castle, and she has to relearn who she is all over again.
There is an interesting look at an outdated version of the "perfect wife" - beautiful, ignorant of worldly affairs, and a good breeder. Nora is none of these without all the enchantments, and I enjoyed watching her fight to figure out where her worth comes from. She is resilient, enterprising, and settles into medieval castle life with an admirable rough determination. She learns how to read the language of the world at night, and finally wins over the respect of her irascible saviour.
I enjoyed the day to day of her life in the castle. In some ways this book has similarities with Outlander - a modern woman sucked into an ancient world and having to find her way. In Outlander as well I liked watching how a woman sporting the feminist viewpoint of her day tries to deal with a suspicious people who don't think that women should speak out quite as much as she does. In Nora's case, she used to be a cook so she begins to help out in the kitchen and the garden. In reality, I imagine I would hate that life, but in my imagination it would be such peaceful and meaningful life. It also makes me think of Outlander, when Claire sets up as a herbalist in Castle Leoch. Both are strong women, trying to make their way in an alien world by using their skills, but can never fit in because they don't act like the women in that time or place.
Nora certainly chafes in a society where women are viewed as inferior creatures, where she cannot travel or speak to anyone without significant danger as she is an odd, unmarried woman, whom everyone believes is sleeping with the magician she shacks up with. Even the magician keeps on trying to marry her off and doesn't think it's worth the time to teach her how to read the language. Nora isn't a typical female character we read about, especially in fantasy novels. She is unattractive (well, compared to the faeries), prickly, determined, and begins the book as a victim. She was already feeling down in her life, and then she was tricked into becoming a pathetic puppet. Even after rescued, she could have stayed that way, and just allowed things to happen to her. And yet, she decides she will be no victim. Instead, she becomes powerful. Even in a strange world, she uses her cleverness and determination to ensure she can not only get by, but be somebody who matters. She learns to work with magic and finds herself falling in love with the world she is in.
I loved Nora and I loved her adventure. I figured this would be a standalone read (perhaps because of that vintage feel?), but I see the author is working on the next book and I was so thankful! Why do we love series so much? I think it's because we invest in the characters, we want to see more of them, follow them on their lives. As readers, characters are very real to us. I think as authors, it is so much fun to write a series as there is so much more opportunity for world building, you can dive deeper into character's backstories. I think it makes for a richer experience. Also, you can leave easter eggs for avid readers! It's always fun when the perfect opportunity to do that arises. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting the next book to discover whether Nora and Areundiel's paths will cross again! Recommended for lovers of 80s fantasy novels, and strong female characters.