If you are looking for anything other than a WASP-y bit of comfort fantasy reading, you will not find it in this book. Contrary to the title, there’s not much thinking going on either. And that’s okay, because Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic does not purport itself to be anything other than what it is: pure, lighthearted escapist fantasy (if you’re a white female, at least). I am a white female, and I enjoyed it for being what it is. Every once in a while, I just need some light & fluffy readerly junk food and this book fit the bill quite nicely.
Real Magic is about a young woman, Nora, unhappy in love and life (having issues finishing her Ph.D in English), whoThe Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic gets spirited away by a faery queen from another world, Ilyssa. There, she is treated to wonderful and endless parties, beautiful gowns, and several suitors, who find her perfect beauty as enchanting as the world around her is enchanted. Nora adapts quickly to her new life and forgets all about her old one, until she finally sees the reality of her situation. On a gust of wind, she travels to the castle of the mysterious magician Aruendiel, who seems to pity and distain her in equal measure both for her situation and because she is a woman. Yes, outside the bright lights of Ilyssa’s parties, Nora finds herself in the generic, vaguely medieval, patriarchal world of magicians, wizards (there is a distinct difference, mind you), knights and kings. The king of this land, like all medieval kings, is planning war with other lands, while Aruendiel continues almost a one-man war with the faeries, here called the Faitoren (it takes Nora a little too long to realize that the Faitoren are the faeries/fairies from our world’s fairy tales, and that they are most definitely not nice), for various, partially-explained reasons. Once rescued from the evil Faitoren’s clutches, Nora has to figure out how to live in her new world, since it doesn’t appear that she’ll be going home any time soon. Her immediate answer is to become a servant in Aruendiel’s castle. Eventually, more than half-way through the book, Nora convinces him to take her on as his student, so that she can learn magic to defend herself and be useful.
Skirmishes with the Faitoren happen, plots are hatched and exposed, and things continue on their merry way towards a definite but open conclusion that clearly indicates a sequel. After all, Nora’s only just gotten exactly what she wanted, while realizing that she’s Elizabeth Bennett to Aruendiel’s Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice provides a minor plot point and an obvious overlay to the novel, but the publishers must have decided that Austen-themed ironic titles were passé, so they resurrected the equally gimmicky “guide to…” ironic title for this fantasy-disguised romantic novel. There’s no bodice-ripping, or even kissing (only a much brooded on missed opportunity), but there’s plenty of sexism, racism and patriarchal BS. But our girl Nora is from an enlightened world, so she can call bullshit when she sees it, and even change the hearts of men by showing them their wrong-headed treatment of women. Same for black people, of whom there is only one. At least she’s a BA magician (gasp, a female one! They can exist!).
The discussion of the treatment of women and mentions of racism are really nothing more than nods by the author in an attempt to apologize for the fact that she couldn’t do much better than sticking to the status quo for contemporary, male-dominated, white fantasy, that she’s taken as her setting a very non-descript and highly unoriginal medieval England, that her characters are fairly bland, and that her plot is that of Pride & Prejudice (if she mentions it directly, she can’t be accused of plagiarism, right? (Not that this is plagiarism, just a lazy imagination)).
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic adds nothing new to the genre and basically just remixes, a tiny bit, the status quo. If you are looking for something a bit more original, or an author that makes a little more effort with the imagination, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a nice, quiet, if a little overlong, piece of readerly comfort food, you could do worse.
Side note: Please do not let Goodreads or Amazon, or anyone else, lead you to think that this is anything like, or belongs in the same category as, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or The Magician King, because it most definitely is NOT.