Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman. During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty. Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.
Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her "real life" against the dangerous power of love and magic.Perhaps the biggest strength of this novel is its main character, Nora. As an English student, I see my own future in Nora, struggling to have innovating ideas about age-old texts. Barker describes the relative drudgery of her academic life perfectly, but the novel really kicks off when Nora ends up in a different world, where everything seems to be perfect and beautiful. Once she recovers herself under Arundiel's roof, the development in her character is so subtle I only realised it upon looking back. Initially quite dependent on those she considers stronger, she learns to work, obey when necessary, but also stand up for herself and demand to be taken into account. Whereas in some novels I wind up wondering what is happening to the other characters and how they are feeling, I felt truly interested in Nora for the entirety of the novel
I absolutely loved Barker's approach to magic in this novel. In many supernatural novels, which I guess this one could be classed as, magic seems to be something that suddenly appears to the main character without any kind of backstory or explanation as to its existence. Barker develops magic as something natural that has to be discovered and felt, as a part of nature that most could see but many fail to really recognize. The concept of different kinds of or stages in magic was also well developed. Nothing ever invented by any society has not been abused at least once, but Barker manages to find a balance between the dark side of magic and the darkness in humans.
Next to being supernatural, to an extent, it is also a fantasy novel which means it comes with the obligatory medieval setting. As a Lord of the Rings fan I often find myself despairing at the lack of originality from some authors in their world-building. Although Barker chose the same stereotypical setting, she kept Nora away from the cliche kings and queens as much as possible. What I really enjoyed was the time Nora spent in the country side, allowing much more interesting and realistic characters to take over and for the novel to move away from the more cliche tropes.
The title very clearly seems to market the novel towards women, which was also one of my first thoughts when I requested the novel. I do believe the novel might not be as engrossing to male readers as to females, considering the female protagonist and her decidedly feminine experiences and thoughts. However, this warning is also accompanied with the reassurance it is incredibly far from the novels usually marketed for women. The key word is probably 'thinking', which allows for a sense of realism and modernity in the book despite its setting and genre.
The novel is rather large which I absolutely loved. There's nothing like completely sinking into a novel after the first 50 pages and knowing you have at least 400 left to go. When the beginning is bad, I dread the rest of the novel, but in this case I just knew it would be exactly what I wanted to read. Which inevitably brings me to the conclusion of the novel which, surprisingly, came much sooner than I expected. Many novels drown in a cliched ending that the author feels they owe the reader, but this novel manages to stop at a point in the narrative where there is still enough story left for the reader to want more, but not so much left unfinished that the reader is unsatisfied.
I give this novel...
Despite its length, or perhaps because of it, I loved sinking away in this novel in the same way Nora enters Arundiel's world. Accompanying her on her path is a true joy, thanks to Barker's modern writing style being combined with the much loved magical medieval world of many fantasy novels. Nora is a great main character that it is easy to sympathise and unify with. If there ever was a sequel, I'd gladly read it!