Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg
Published June 28, 2016 by 47North, 306 pp.
Copy provided by NetGalley and publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.
When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.
During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.
From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.
If someone asks me what fantasy is, I’d probably show them this book. Granted, it might not be the best fantasy book, but as something that encompasses the general definition* of the genre, Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet I think fits the bill perfectly. It’s got magic (you don’t say), otherworldly creatures, and phenomenal baked goods. Yup.
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is about Maire – she can bake up a storm, and with each baked good she makes, she infuses a bit of magic in them. She doesn’t know how she can do it, she just can. Maire leads a fairly idyllic life with her parents, just that she doesn’t remember anything before Franc and Arrice took her in almost 5 years ago. When marauders storm through her small village, she’s taken captive and sold as a slave to a man that seems like he knows her. Or who she was before. Along with Fyel, the most unhelpful specter ever, she completes each task the slave owner gives her if only to find out more about who she is. As she unravels the mystery of her past however, more questions than answers come up, and when she finally does figure it out, she isn’t sure how she feels about the answer.
The synopsis of this book looks so benign and harmless you wouldn’t expect the amount of violence in this. I certainly didn’t. So I’m going put a trigger warning for violence here, just to be sure, if you do go ahead and read Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet.
How do I even start with this book without giving anything away? I think Charlie Holmberg did a good job weaving Maire’s mystery identity, just that this was drawn out too long. The beginning was slow, and I took some time getting into the story, but once Maire is in captivity under Allemas, the slave owner, the story just drags even if I did do like it. Fyel didn’t help. At all. Well he tried sometimes. But most of the time he just showed up, looking pretty, and every once in a while he’d drop useful hints like “Trust me,” or “Stay with him, Maire,”
Maire spends quite some time as a slave, and in the time she’s kept captive it really isn’t pleasant. She’s beaten multiple times, goes with minimal food and water for days at a time, and at one point her foot gets mangled from an animal trap. Seriously. If you’re uncomfortable with violence I wouldn’t recommend this to you. At some point even I thought this was darker than I thought it was going to be. This from a girl that actively seeks blood in fantasy books.
This is character-driven, and as such, Maire is the one that drives everything along. I’m glad I got to experience the book through her point of view. She’s strong, she thinks, and she does her best to positive and kind despite the circumstances she finds herself in. As she pieces together every answer she gets she’s even more confused because how do Allemas and Fyel fit into it all? Do they even? Is Fyel just a friendly ghost looking to help? Or something else entirely?
To Fyel’s credit, he really can’t do much, as in the laws of the universe don’t allow him to. He bends things to Maire’s benefit when he can, or when Maire has flashbacks and he can tell her things, he does. Just that there was so much in between that I felt, in the end, weren’t really needed. I think this could’ve benefited from a more compacted version of events, especially while she’s in captivity. Not because of the violence, but because the scenes in between didn’t really have any meaning, and just added to the page count needlessly. Maybe they do have meaning, but it kind of flew over my head.
Is there romance? I think there is a bit, but we come into the story the romance is already established, and even when we read how they got together, it isn’t really romantic. It’s kind of matter-of-fact, even? Though I do love their relationship, because even if it isn’t fireworks and sparks, it’s steady and solid. Just what Maire needs while she’s going through all this.
“Thank you,” I whisper once my breathing is somewhat steady. “Thank you for coming for me.”
His voice, so warm and close, answers, “There was never another option.”
I do think that the big reveal at the end, of who Maire is, was great. Thankfully it explains a lot of things, and because of that this works well as a stand-alone novel. The writing is good too, it pulls you in once you get into the story.
Love. I think of the scent of corn roasting Arrice’s oven and the perfume of sun-warmed leaves. I imagine the soft fur of a hare under my fingers, the sound of children laughing as they clash sticks together down the street, and Franc, Arrice’s husband, plucking the strings of his mandolin by firelight while stars twinkle overhead.
Is this great? I wouldn’t say great, more like something different. A good different, in my opinion. Also, if you like good epilogues like I do, I think you’ll find the epilogue in Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet a bit lacking. It isn’t clear who it is in the epilogue, but I like to think it’s Maire and her happily ever after. Still, it would’ve been nice if it were more concrete, but I’m somewhat satisfied!
3.5, so let’s round it up to 4. It has its flaws, but overall I liked Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. True to the title, there are moments when everything seems to be going south, and there are times when Maire has space to breath, but in the end this is kind of bittersweet. And I liked it! This is my first book from Charlie N. Holmberg, and I’m looking forward to trying her other books.
For me this reminds me of fallen angels, but the twist and the way Charlie Holmberg paints the realms where they come from is just amazing. I loved those parts.
Mmmm Maire is the one that carries this all, but other characters get their fair share of stories as well. Arrice and Franc, Fyel, and Allemas were all given appropriately detailed side stories.
I liked it, but Fyel was a bit passive for most of the book, so there really isn’t much romance. What romance there is though, is sweet and steady, so points for that!
* General definition being “a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting.” (Taken from Goodreads)