Paper Mage, by Leah R. Cutter (Roc, 2003)

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a young woman gave up a chance at immortality to remain with her family. On that day, she vowed that should any of her descendants ever show the right talents, she’d do whatever it took to give them that chance at immortality. Years later, it looks like the stars have aligned again….

Xiao Yen is a most unconventional young woman, one who flouts society’s unwritten rules to study as a paper mage, encouraged by her aunt Mei-Mei (who once loved an immortal) and ridiculed by other family and neighbors alike. She has talent aplenty, able to breathe life into delicate paper creations, to summon cranes and tigers, crabs and snakes, turning the art of origami into magic. However, she has to prove herself time and again to teachers, fellow students, family, and herself. And even when she graduates, the tests are nowhere near over. In fact, they’ve only just begun. Her very first job, as a caravan guard, turns unpredictable and deadly when she meets a goddess, and only Xiao Yen’s powers and cleverness can change the very world around her. Can Xiao Yen free one of the gods from the grip of a cruel tyrant, when her own life and virtue are in danger? Can she forge an alliance with the unpredictable Westerners who don’t understand the society they travel in, or the rules they’re breaking? Can she reconcile heart and soul with the dangers and duties ahead? If she doesn’t, the world she’s always known will be destroyed.

Paper Mage is set in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a time when magic was real, gods could walk the earth, and dragons dwelt in the rivers. Well, for us they didn’t, but Leah Cutter conjures up a skillful and authentic atmosphere that mixes the magic and the mundane seamlessly in such a way that we can accept such things. Alternating Xiao Yen’s current adventure with snippets and scenes set during her years of study and training, Paper Mage weaves the two stories together until we understand just who this young woman is, where she came from, and how she became a paper mage against all expectations.

This is a story about duty and obligation, and about finding your own path even if you have to defy everything you were taught to believe in. It’s about overcoming doubt and self-pity and insecurity, and relying on inner strength. Xiao Yen is a likeable and sympathetic character whose very fallability makes her all the more real. Her struggle to understand the part luck and magic play in her life — and in her heart — provides an underlying challenge she has to overcome amidst far greater exterior threats.

Although a lot of people have said a lot of nice things about Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and its sequels, I’ve managed to miss them, mainly because until now, I was never that interested in Chinese myth, as least not in comparison to the more familiar European source materials most Western authors drawn on. Thanks to Paper Mage, that’s changed, and I’ll be looking for Hughart’s work as soon as possible. This is a beautiful, delicate, intricate book, the words origami-folded into one of those flowers that just keeps opening and opening and revealing more of itself with each new day. Skillfully constructed, it manages to tell a highly satisfying story, bringing Xiao Yen’s adventure to a close without closing off room for the sequel I hope is forthcoming.

Paper Mage is the sort of book I can recommend to any fantasy lover without hesitation. Even if you’ve avoided Chinese-inspired stories because they were too alien compared to the European-flavored stuff that fills the shelves, this is a book worth reading. Leah Cutter’s debut novel proves that she has what it takes to become a great new talent.

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