After reading The Mermaid’s Sister and Son-of-Gold by Carrie Anne Noble, I dipped into an e-magazine, Deep Magic, to catch a little bit more of Noble’s writing. The magazine is a fantastic collection of magic-fantasy-type short stories and includes interviews with fantasy writers. The length of the stories and interviews were perfect for light travel reading or a bit of a recharge between family events this week.
The June 2016 edition (the edition that included one of Noble’s short stories) included the first five chapters of Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg. Those 5 chapters were fantastic and promised a can’t-stop-reading kind of tale.
Maire, the 24 year old main character, is found bruised and battered in the road, remembering nothing but her name. No one knows who she is or where she comes from. Maire spends four years in Carmine, building a life as a surrogate daughter with Arrice (her rescuer) and Arrice’s husband, Franc.
Maire’s talent lies in baking. Her thoughts, feelings and emotions can be transposed into baked goods, allowing Maire to open a successful bakeshop in which she sells goodies laced with feelings of love, luck, endurance, strength, and hope. The action kicks off when marauders raid the village, taking Maire and several others as captives to be sold as slaves. After a long journey, Maire is purchased by a strange man and thus begins the descent of Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet.
Holmberg never provides a solid description of Carmine, nor the “time” in which the story takes place, leaving the story particularly ungrounded. It takes a good portion of the book to figure out that Carmine isn’t on Earth but a small village in Di, which is part of the world Rea. Whether Di is a country, a state, or an island, I don’t know. How magic incorporates into this world is also frustratingly unknown, Holmberg never provides the context necessary to understand Maire’s talent or her captor’s unusual ability to travel.
As far as the marauders…we don’t know who they are, why they attacked Carmine, what they look like or even what they were doing in Carmine. We don’t know if there was a thriving slave trade prior to the attack or if the author just needed a plot device to get Maire on the road.
The time in which Maire’s story takes place isn’t exactly clear either. We know she’s been in Carmine for four years, but we don’t know if the tale is taking place in the past, present, or future. The confusion with the location, the timeline and the extent of magic is compounded as Maire journeys from location to location, both with magic and on foot.
Holmberg has Maire dipping in and out of traditional fairy tales like Alice and Wonderland, The Gingerbread Man, and Hansel and Gretel as a means to explain the magical baked goods in those stories, but never completes the how and why for Maire being involved in those stories. They do not serve the plot line in anyway, nor do they bring any clarity on who Maire is or how those stories worked their way into our fairy tales on Earth.
Another major plot failure for me is that several other characters seem to know who or what Maire is, but are unable to tell her due to some untold “laws of the universe”. The game of “I know but can’t tell you because the Gods will get mad at me”, gets old quick and whole chunks of the story could have been cut out to avoid these “I know everything but I can’t tell you” scenes. Actually, thinking about it now, it’s never explained why they can’t tell Maire or who told them not to or what the consequences would have been for telling her everything right away. Again, another plot device that helped the story limp along without providing any real substance.
*Spoilers below* (highlight to read)
Maire’s captor, Allemas, is a strange man who subjects her to unusual and inexplicable violence. His treatment of Maire is never fully explained and at least 70% of this book could be summarized as “Beats Maire and throws her into the cellar. Retrieves Maire from cellar so she can bake epically. Experiences weird fit and scattered confusion. Enacts some sort of strange cruel violence against Maire and throws her in the cellar for several days where she is starving, thirsty and recovering from wounds. Maire sits in cellar waiting.” This pattern of inexplicable violence and captivity got old and I ended up skipping ahead a bit to get out of the damn cellar.
Even with the conclusion of the book, the entire character of Allemas’ remains totally unexplained. Why did he keep changing his name? How did he manage to retain memories of Maire while she lost all memory? How did he learn to survive in the world with no mentioned help or friends while Maire required loving attention from Arrice and Franc to manage? How did the traditional fairy tales incorporate into Allemas’ story? Why did Allemas treat Maire the way he did knowing what he knew about her? Where did he learn the extreme violence? What was he hoping to get from Maire? How did he know she could bake? What was going on Fyel and Allemas throughout the book?
The worst part, for me was the sudden “breaking” of Allemas. With no reasonable explanation or cause, he went from a dominating brutal captor who chained and beat Maire without reason into a brain-dead zombie who followed her around like a beaten dog. And Maire, who had been held hostage by this violent stranger for 70% of the book, felt sorry for him. What. The. Hell.
The script above the chapter numbers seemed to be a summary of Allemas’ thoughts, but they really added nothing to the story and actually made it harder to read, as I kept trying to figure out what the hell it all meant.
All in all, Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet started out strong and had the bones of a great story. Unfortunately, it was really disjointed. If you remove the random references to fairy tales, remove the random scenes of violence and remove the “I know everything but I can’t tell you” scenes, the book doesn’t have much to stand on. There were just too many things going on at one time that never knit the full story together. This books gets 2.5 stars from me as well as a recommendation for some sort of warm gingery wintery cider and a supply of cookies. The descriptions of lavender cake and gingerbread did not help curb the holiday eating at all.
Until next time,