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Paper Mage
Leah R. Cutter
Roc, 339 pages


Mark Harrison
Paper Mage
Leah R. Cutter
During the day, Leah R. Cutter is a technical writer for PeopleSoft. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming with her husband, Mike Brotherton, whose first novel, Star Dragon, is published by Tor.

Leah R. Cutter Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Cindy Lynn Speer

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Mei-Mei was offered the immortal peach, but filial piety prevented her from taking it. Now, years later, her granddaughter Xiao Yen may finally have a chance to impress Old Zhang enough to be offered this peach. She has been trained to give it to her Aunt, who regrets her decision and longs to be swept away to a better place, away from the cycle of birth and rebirth, pain and sorrow.

If you have ever seen someone deftly folding a piece of paper according to the art of origami, then you may well think that it is magic. In Paper Mage, the magic is real. Xiao Yen is a rarity, a woman paper mage, skillful at folding paper into shapes and giving it life: a tiger to protect a merchant camp, a crane to chase off a spirit. Her Aunt Wang Tie-Tie (called Mei-Mei in her youth) has encouraged her schooling all along. When Master Wei asks for Xiao Yen to become one of his students, in the profession that Old Zhang the immortal himself practiced, she realizes that she has finally found the one who may have a chance at the peach. Fu Be-Be, Xiao Yen's mother, wants her to have the normal things -- a proper life with a good husband and many children. For her daughter to fly in the face of propriety brings shame upon her and her house. So, Xiao Yen is being manipulated by both parties. She can't make both of them happy. She is bound to her Aunt by her promise to do something worthy, get Zhang's attention, and get the peach for her Aunt, by Fu Be-Be (and her other female relatives) who hold the ideal life with a husband in front of her like a temptation, trying to force her to give up the magic she loves.

This young woman, fresh out of school, is given a commission arranged by her Aunt, to guard a caravan of horse merchants run by foreign bothers Udo and Ehran on its journey to the coast. Alone among strangers who fear her as much as she fears them, her only friend is Bei Xi, a courtesan. When she realizes that the younger brother, Ehran, is growing sick and weak, Xiao Yen figures that Bei Xi is a fox fairy, and despite her gratitude towards the woman for the sisterly way she has taught Xiao Yen language and knot magic, she knows has to do something about it. But Bei Xi is no Fox-Fairy. She is a goddess, and she has a special commission for Xiao Yen. An evil warlord has tricked and murdered her little sister. He feeds off souls to keep himself alive, and these souls are trapped and unable to be reborn. If Xiao Yen can find the one belonging of this sister that the warlord didn't destroy and use it to scratch him, then he will die and not only will a war be prevented, but the souls will go free.

Paper Mage is a beautifully wrought story. The folk tales and legends blend well into the cloth, embroidering the story with richness, as does the wonderful details of Xiao's life. You can tell that Leah R. Cutter researched the time period well, for every aspect feels both mystical and very real, breathing life into a time that strikes me, at least, as one of the most magical of all.

Another aspect that I found intriguing was the theme of this book. Xiao is a young woman pulled between two things. As I mentioned, her mother wants her to be a proper daughter, to marry and have the life that she thinks a woman should have. Wang Tie-Tie is handing her another world, where she can have silence and contemplation and power. A woman of that time can barely dream of reaching for this forbidden fruit that Wang Tie-Tie holds out to her in trade for the peach, and Xiao most of all, being a good girl (her name, after all, as Cutter points out to us, also means filial piety), wants to make everyone happy. The majority of the people around her, from her sisters to her fellow students, think the route to her own joy leads her to the arms of a husband. Xiao must learn that either she can please her mother or her Aunt or, perhaps, she can make a decision about who she really is, and learn to please herself. This journey, in some ways, is the hardest of all. Harder, even, than her journey to fight the warlord. It is also the one we can empathize with the most. Sure, we all love to hear about fighting dragons, but we'll never get there. But who hasn't embarked on the other journey, the journey to find one's self?

Paper Mage marks a gorgeous debut. I look forward to what she'll do in the future.

Copyright © 2003 Cindy Lynn Speer

Cindy Lynn Speer loves books so much that she's designed most of her life around them, both as a librarian and a writer. Her books aren't due out anywhere soon, but she's trying. You can find her site at www.apenandfire.com.


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