Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet: A bittersweet tale of magic and life

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg fantasy book reviewsMagic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg

Maire, a baker in the small village of Carmine, is notable for two unusual characteristics. First, other than her name, she has complete amnesia about everything in her life up to the time she appeared near the village four and a half years ago. And secondly, Maire has the magical gift of infusing her baked goods with feelings and abilities that will be absorbed by the person who eats her food: strength, love, mercy, patience … even, it seems, some magical abilities.

One day a pale, translucent man, with strange wings that look more like sunlit water than feathers, appears and talks to Maire briefly. He orders her to run for her life, but it’s too late: marauders on horseback are storming the village and killing or capturing everyone in sight. Maire is taken and soon sold as a slave to a very odd and sinister man, Allemas, who finds out about her magical cooking abilities. He makes several strange demands of her ― for example, make a life-sized gingerbread house in the woods for a customer ― in between mistreating and neglecting her. Allemas changes his name several times during the course of this tale, indicative of his inconsistent and broken nature.

The only thing that comforts Maire (though it frustrates her as well) is the occasional visits of Fyel, the winged man who appeared to her earlier. Fyel knows Maire’s past but is afraid to share more information with her, concerned that if he tells her before she is ready to wholly believe what he says, she will be “lost.” But Fyel’s visits are gradually starting to open a crack in her memories and even changing Maire physically.

There is a whole other world of spells and sorcery coexisting with my own. Alger knows it. This woman in the woods knows it. I believe, somehow, that Fyel knows it. I am completely ignorant about this hidden realm, but when I bake, I scrape my nails beneath its door.

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (2016) is itself an unusual confection, where there are fanciful details, such as Maire’s angel-like visitor, the delightful bakery foods steeped in magic, and fairy tale references, mixed together with the bitter, painful life of a slave. There are some cruel and brutal events related to Maire’s slavery (not, however, including any sexual violence against Maire) that may be difficult reading for young or sensitive readers.

The pace is, for the most part, rather slow and contemplative. Told in first person present tense, most of the time is spent with Maire in a state of confused frustration, cudgeling her brain to try to remember who she is, and attempting to figure out a way to escape from Allemas. Several clues foreshadow the big reveal at the end, so it wasn’t really a surprise for me, though some of the pertinent details were. Fittingly, it was both bitter and sweet.

The plot relies a bit too heavily on coincidence for a few key developments in the story, such as Allemas finding Maire and being able to purchase her as a slave, and Maire finding a certain crystal in an entirely random place. The world-building is a bit thin as well; this land is a rather typical medieval-level society, not given a lot of depth or detail. Charlie N. Holmberg does, however, weave in some significant themes in Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. Ideas and thoughts regarding the paths we choose to follow in pursuing our desires, the mistakes we make and the consequences we bear as a result of our choices, whether ultimately for good or ill ― bitter or sweet, or both ― add resonance to this mythical and, in the end, rather spiritual story.

Published June 28, 2016. Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from. When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes. During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences. From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. The overall concept seems intriguing, if a bit, as you say, contemplative. I, personally, generally prefer world-building with more originality than just “medieval-style,” but it sounds like Holmberg’s focus was on the characters rather than their surroundings.

  2. I think the chocolate in Harris’s Chocolat” had this same magical trait, but I still like it, and the emphasis on the characters makes this intriguing.

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