Paper Mage
A Novel by Leah R. Cutter
Published by ROC, 2003
A review by Colleen R. Cahill
March 2004

Fantasies often focus on magic and many contain wizards, wands and spells. Occasionally, a new idea springs up and such is the case with Leah R. Cutter’s Paper Mage. Set in China’s Tang Dynasty, we follow the life of Xiao Yen, who is trained in the magic art of paper folding.  By her skill and strength of will, she can created guardian tigers, graceful cranes and crafty scorpions. But this puts her in an isolated state, as there is no place in Chinese society for a woman magician.

Xiao Yen is set on her unusual life path by the matriarch of her family, her Auntie Wang. This stern and domineering lady wants her niece to do a great deed and win the magic peach; a peach that will take the person who eats it directly to the Isle of the Blessed and off of the eternal wheel of rebirth.  Auntie Wang longs for this release from repeated suffering and sees Xiao Yen as her best chance to gain the fruit. So as a child, Xiao Yen is sent off to a paper mage school. On one hand, she is overjoyed to learn how to make paper come to life as doves and other animals, but on the other, she is now separated from her family and becoming an anomaly: a woman who works magic. If she marries, she will get a poor husband because of her training and if she works, she will get poor jobs because she is a woman. The story alternates between Xiao Yen’s schooling and her first job: to guard valuable horses that foreigners are taking to the coast. Being employed by foreigners has a stigma attached to it, but Xiao Yen realizes she has little choice. It is quickly evident that her job will be more than to protect the horses, as a mysterious courtesan joins the party and soon Xiao Yen is thick in a plot to overthrow a tyrant and free a trapped soul.

Cutter has created a world of magic out of the myths and gods of China. She has mined a rich source, as Barry Hughart did in the  Master Li series. Cutter stays true to this culture: many would ask why Xiao Yen does not take the peach for herself, but she follows the rules of her society and shows respect for the head of her family. Xiao Yen does not use her gifts to flaut convention, as other fantasy heroines might, but lives the by the rules of her upbringing. And all this is combined with the interesting twist of paper magic. This book will speak to anyone who has folded a crane or admired the magic in a paper dragon.

In the back of the book is a bibliography with a short list of non-fiction, myths, and web sources that show Cutter has studied her source of inspiration. I was delighted to find she was not only familiar with Hughart, but had also read another of my favorite writers, Robert Van Gulik of the Judge Dee mysteries.  Paper Mage is not a copy of any of these works, but shines on its own merits and unique qualities.

I recommend you brew a cup of tea, find a quiet spot and take this adventurous trip to a wonderful alternative China.