Master Wei's fingers were stiff and precise as he folded the paper. When he finished, he revealed a beautiful paper dove. Master Wei stared at the dove. His forehead didn't wrinkle, but Xiao Yen could tell he concentrated hard. A real dove, gray and white, now stood on the table. It pecked at its feet a few times before spreading its wings and hopping into the air.
In Paper Mage, Leah R. Cutter takes us on a journey to a faraway place and time, a refreshing change from the traditional faux European medieval fantasies that glut bookstore shelves. Set in the Tang Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (about the time of Charlemagne in Europe), the novel tells us of the adventures of Xiao Yen, a young woman training to become a paper mage, a sorceror with the power to endow folded creations with the semblance of life. She builds a story rich in Chinese myth -- rampaging river and rat dragons, gods and immortals who walk the earth, and the particular magic used to bring folded paper creatures to life. Paper Mage is enlivened with Chinese cultural detail -- clothes, food, rituals, and the nature of relationships.
Cutter's debut novel has many strengths: an adventurous plot, a vivid setting, believable characters, and a satisfying ending. The story begins before Xiao Yen is born. In the village of Bao Fang, Mei-Mei, a beautiful girl, defies her family to bring food to her older sister, banished for marrying a man not of her father's choosing. Mei-Mei sees the poverty her sister lives in as well as the love that fills her life. She leaves confused about her own fate. Mei-Mei cannot bring additional disgrace on the family by following her sister's path, yet she has doubts about her own intended husband. She is tempted by the immortal Zhang Gua Lao, patron of the paper folding mages. She can eat his magic peach and pass beyond the circle of death and rebirth, or do her duty to her family and remain in the mortal world. She chooses to stay, but Zhang suggests she might have a second chance.
Many years later, young Xiao Yen prepares to leave on a frightening journey to protect a caravan of strangers from the Far Western lands on their trek through the Middle Kingdom. Her aunt, the formidable Wang Tie-Tie, has arranged for this commission. Xiao Yen spent many hard and lonely years mastering her magic. Her teacher Master Wei considers her gifted, but she is shaken and unsure. The dragon protecting her town of Bao Fang took her luck. Will she be able to do her duty and protect these strangers from the barbaric horsemen who threaten the caravan routes? Does she want to live a life far from family and friends, forever among foreigners and their strange ways? Will she do the great deeds her aunt expects of her and attract the attention of the immortal Zhang Gua Lao?
The story cuts back and forth between Xiao Yen's adventures on the trail and her life and struggles as a girl learning to be a mage in a culture where girls are wives and mothers. On the trail she matches wits and magic with a goddess traveling as a courtesan, a vicious rat dragon guarding a magic hairpin, a barbarian overlord who wants to eat her soul, and an herbal mage who inadvertently destroys her peace and with it her magic. Each challenge is met with trepidation and strength -- her own, and those of the new friends she makes.
In the back story we learn how Xiao Yen became such a gifted young woman. Her aunt Wang Tie-Tie (the young Mei-Mei) had been bound to a cruel husband who treated her as property even to the point of branding her as his own. On his death and that of his brother (Xiao Yen's father) in a river accident, Wang Tie-Tie took over the family business and responsibility for her widowed sister-in-law and her daughters. Xiao Yen was chosen by Master Wei to train as a paper mage and fulfill Wang Tie-Tie's dream of obtaining another magic peach.
But the young mage-in-training must contend with the disdain of her fellow students, possible clients, and her own family. Her mother and sister want her to get married and have sons like a proper girl. This conflict between aunt and mother is mirrored in Xiao Yen's soul as she tries to reconcile her gifts of magic and her yearning for normalcy. Her journey is not only physical, but emotional, as she sorts through her loyalties, makes her choices, and finally resolves her future.
Cutter does on paper what Xiao Yen does with paper -- animate her characters with richly realized detail and motivation appropriate to the time and culture. Many 21st century readers might cringe at Xiao Yen's deference to men, older family members, and those of higher social standing, but that deference is a core value of her culture. Her averted eyes and deprecating speech allow her to be unconventional in other ways.
Within rigid cultural definitions we see a number of women, how they manage, what penalties they pay and joys they gain for their choices -- Mei-Mei's sister is mutilated and banished, but loved; Wang Tie-Tie marries a cruel man but has the satisfaction that she did her duty by her family and became a successful business woman; Xiao Yen's sister marries happily but suffers the loss of a child. From fellow students to brash western foreigners to gods, each character is fully fleshed and alive. I was particularly pleased with Cutter's resolution of Xiao Yen's dilemma. She avoided the obvious and expected, and remained true to her characters.
Cutter's experience with, research into, and admiration for Chinese culture shine in every line of the book. She left the U.S. in 1992 for a three-and-a-half-year adventure, lived and worked in Budapest, traveled the length of Russia to Mongolia and China, taught English in Taiwan for thirteen months, tended bar in Laos for three, hiked to the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal and more. Much, much more. All the elements of foreign travel: dealing with different people, language, food, and customs -- even the feelings of homesickness and self-doubt -- Cutter uses to great effect in her story of Xiao Yen, a paper mage.
Copyright © 2003 Faith L. Justice
Faith L. Justice's pre-writing life included work as a lifeguard, paralegal, college professor, and business consultant. She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in New York City. Faith's nonfiction has been published in In These Times, Salon.com, Writer's Digest, and The Writer, among many others.