It takes my character Nora some time to realize that she has left her own world behind and entered another one altogether. That’s partly because she spends several chapters in a happy, distracted fog of enchantment, her perceptions dulled. Nor is Nora—at least as the book starts out—the kind of person who would ever entertain the notion that other worlds exist.
When the enchantment is finally dissipated and Nora is herself again, she finds herself in a place that’s very different from anything she’s used to. It’s a rural, agricultural society organized on feudal lines, with a hereditary aristocracy dominating a much larger group of mostly landless peasants. The technology in use is primitive. People travel via horse or on foot. Houses are lit by candles or oil lamps and heated with wood fires. Nora misses indoor plumbing.
Another shock for her is the subordinate status of women, who are the legal property of their husbands or male relatives. If a husband kills an unfaithful spouse, it’s justifiable homicide—although, to be fair, the more enlightened stratum of this world’s society now considers murdering an adulterous wife to be in rather poor taste. Almost all women are illiterate. Nora discovers that her habit of saying hello to the men she encounters and looking them in the eye draws comment. Although Nora finds a niche for herself in Lord Aruendiel’s household, none of her professional skills acquired as a graduate student in English literature have any relevance now, and she can’t reasonably expect anything better than a life of cooking, cleaning, and physical labor.
And then there is the magic. That’s the biggest change from the world Nora knows, and it takes her a long time to accept the existence of magic, even though Aruendiel, who is a magician, gives her more than one compelling demonstration. Her brain keeps thinking: There must be another explanation. Like, maybe I’m crazy. As it happens, Aruendiel has also visited Nora’s world—our world. “It was intriguing to see how a world can be organized without magic,” he tells Nora. “There was magic there, of course, but the inhabitants might as well have been blind or deaf, they were so unaware of it.” Once Nora does decide that magic exists, her next thought is: How can I do magic, too? The second half of my novel tells the story of how she fulfills that ambition.
Showing readers Aruendiel’s world through Nora’s eyes emphasizes its strangeness and exoticism. But for me as a writer, the two worlds are not so different. After all, there are plenty of places in our world where poverty keeps people living in pre-modern squalor, where local warlords rule, and/or where women are treated as second-class citizens. I drew on my knowledge of our world to create a credible alternate universe, trying to include as many specific details as possible, making some educated guesses.
In a world with magic, for instance, would there be any incentive to develop sophisticated engineering or technological solutions to various problems in daily life? Probably not. That lack in turn would inhibit any shift towards an industrial revolution or the growth of a mass market. And having magic in the hands of a relatively small number of magicians or wizards who work mostly for kings and aristocrats would likely reinforce that society’s existing hierarchy (while perhaps also fueling rivalries among those lords and monarchs). If you have to be able to read to practice magic—which seems to be the case in Aruendiel’s world—and most women can’t read, that’s another barrier to the female empowerment. Sadly, magic does not always make for a more just, prosperous, or peaceful society.
As Aruendiel himself would be the first to admit, learning magic is one thing. Using it properly is another art entirely.
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.
About the author:
A graduate of Harvard University, Emily Croy Barker has been a magazine journalist for more than 20 years. She is currently executive editor at The American Lawyer magazine. This is her first novel.
Viking/Penguin is providing a print copy of The Thinking Women's Guide to Real Magic to one winner.