Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

“Out of habit, she stopped by the bookshelf in the living room to see if there was a paperback that she could stuff into her pocket for emergencies — you never knew when you might need a book to entertain and comfort and distract you in the day’s empty places.”

I loved the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. I also read, didn’t much like, The Magicians by Lev Grossman (it had its moments, but I just loathed the protagonist). As such, Goodreads determined that I would like The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (henceforth, TTWGTRM). I was skeptical. I mean, the title is just … let’s put it mildly and say I find the title offputting in the same way that I found Trophy Wife offputting  – there was just something slightly anti-woman or the very least belittling of a certain type of woman ad I was just turned off by it all. That being said, like Trophy Wife, I gave TTWGTRM a chance, and, like Trophy Wife, I adored TTWGTRM despite its unfortunate name! 

Well played, Goodreads, well played. 


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.

So Nora is a woman after my own heart: she likes to read; she’s rational to a fault; and, hell, she survived academia, more or less, intact. She’s been through a really bad break up not long before the novel begins and now she has to confront the possibility that her mentor will drop her for her lack of movement on her thesis, as well as a weekend wedding where her ex will inevitably be. And she does so in a crcurmudgeonly way that makes me feel like I know her. Well, that she is me … 


So she’s at the weekend wedding and up earlier than everyone else, despite that fact that she was gloriously tanked the previous night. She grabs a book off the shelf of the place she’s staying and opts for a walk through the chilly morning. And of course, she comes across a wee little cemetery, queer and old looking and forlorn. And she goes in, because who wouldn’t? And then suddenly, she’s lost, the mists close in and she keeps walking and hoping she hasn’t missed her friend’s wedding or worse, her ride back to the city. 

And then in the distance she sees someone. A happy looking, delightful someone who invites her to a party. 

That’s how the story starts. 

We learn that Nora has found a woman, Ilissa, a queen of some sort, with a dashing if aloof son, Raclin who Nora falls in love with. Strange things happen, and Nora starts figuring out that she is no longer on the earth as she thought it. And now, she is captured by strange ugly people – very different from her charmed and beautiful new friends, who introduce her to the Magician, Aruendiel – who warns her against returning to her new friends, which, of course, she does. 

At this point, not only are things getting messy, but there is definitely a voice in your head going “Nora! Nora – you idiot! Why would you go back with them? Why??”. I will spare you – she won’t listen to you, and since we’re still in the first 1/4 of the book, and the book is near towards 500 odd pages, save your breath. 

Without any spoilers, I will give you this:

The book is complicated – there are so many characters, types of entities (magicians, wizards, humans, demons, faitoren, etc), and back stories that you may want to keep an index next to your for your own reference. That being said – there is a lot of downtime in the book where you can “catch up” as it were. Some would argue, there is a lot of down time. Actually, in that I feel like this book is in the same legacy as the All Souls Trilogy and The Magicians – it introduces you into a world of magic, establishes the rules and gives you both characters to rule for and against, and then it sits there, while the main characters sort of chill and do little things, adding to their knowledge of the new world, and you just wait (im)patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

And then when it drops – it slams down and shakes the very foundations of the world. In this case, the story sort of rises to action, and there is a definite climax, and then the falling action creates a new sort of action sequence that is just then … well … ends. So there’s that. And unlike at the end of A Discovery of Witches where we know there will be a sequel and we’re even given a sort of trajectory of the sequel, there’s nothing here – it just ends. So there’s that. 

That being said – the book is pushing 500 pages. She had to end it somewhere, and this made sense. She couldn’t have just ended it after that huge aforementioned climax – too much would have been left unresolved. Actually the more I think about it, the more I like the way it ended, even though it did leave me hanging. 

So do I recommend this book? 

Yes. I recommend it for all those who like a fantasy series from a moderate feminist perspective (Seriously …) as well as those who liked The All Souls Trilogy. I liked it for its complicated characters more so than the plot and there is something of a layering in the thoughts and perspectives of characters – the only two on the screen for the majority of the book are Nora and Aruendiel, but there is a handful of characters that pop in and out of the narrative and each time they add a new layer that makes them feel more and more real and entirely needed for the story to continue. 

So in short – I would recommend it. I liked the characters, I liked the story and I look forward to the next installment! 


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