Title: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg
Rating: ♥ ♥
TL;DR: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is a fantasy story that features magic and a hundred pages of Sisyphean punishment that made it a tough read that was not redeemed by a quick and clean ending.
I received a copy of this book through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet opens with the tale of Maire, who is able to enchant magical treats in her bakery, but Maire is more than she appears. Four years ago she appeared in town as if dropped from the heavens with no memory of who she was besides her name. Soon, Maire finds herself a slave, sold to a strange and primitive master who forces her to create magical treats while holding her wholly under his control. To be free and find her true identity, Maire must trust otherworldly beings and escape the clutches of her captor.
When I saw Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet on Net Galley, I was incredibly excited. I have Holmberg’s Paper Magician series on my to-be-read pile and thought I would love this based on the description, but I found MBMS to drag horribly and I nearly gave up around 30%.
The majority of the book is mostly Maire suffering at the hands of her captor. It reads like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up hill only to have it roll back. Maire gets instructions from the mysterious, ethereal Fyel on how she can possibly escape, and instead, she doesn’t do it, which leads to more suffering. I read through all of her tasks, cursing her for her stupidity and feeling very little sympathy for her. Poor battered, maimed Maire is a glutton for punishment, and I was completely over it by the halfway point. At the very end, when Maire is putting the pieces together from her memory, all of her tasks seem to have a purpose, but every pointless task is made relevant and done with within a few paragraphs. It was too clean and not worth the hundred pages of drudgery for the reader.
The other incredibly off-putting aspect of MBMS is that the antagonist appears to be a mentally handicapped man. He’s violent, called stupid by Maire, and is treated like a freak and a horrible person for at least 80% of the book. It just didn’t feel right. In the end, his handicap makes sense, but it made me incredibly uncomfortable. Can we really hold a mentally handicapped person responsible for their actions? Should we judge them like they’re normal? Maire tries to understand, but it reminded me of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. The handicapped hulking killer trope shouldn’t be revived.
In the last three chapters, everything comes together so neatly and quickly. It would have been a better experience for me if the beginning had been shorter and the info/flashbacks had been sprinkled in throughout the story. The relationship between Maire and her captor makes me wonder if the author was trying to grapple with a personal experience. I won’t mention what because it could give the ending away, but its deeply personal message hindered the story. Holmberg simply spent too long punishing Maire and the reader.