Emily Croy Barker might be a less-than-obvious follow up to Harry Potter’s golden world of wizardry, but her mastery of the fantastical makes her a perfect fit. Barker shows us why it’s okay to lean into the ugly. She gives us a magical world tarnished by the same human vulnerability that we encounter in the real world. Her decadent use of detail whisks you away from your world into hers so seamlessly that you might think you just stepped outside. Somehow, she uses the most fanciful settings to demystify the reader about aspects of the real world, revealing all the ugly bits of existence through the lens of a nonexistent world.
Her characters rarely do what you want them to, constantly making you scream at the pages or blow out a frustrated breath. Her stories guide you gently in one direction only to drag you in a completely different direction halfway through. You’ll never get comfortable with where her books are going until they come to an end. Barker’s tales make Harry Potter seem like a brief jaunt in a bouncy castle, devoid of real conflict that strikes the heart and leaves you almost empty, in the best of ways.
She even recently released her newest novel, How to Talk to a Goddess and Other Lessons in Real Magic, in late June, so she’s not pumping the brakes on her creation of beautiful worlds anytime soon.
THE RECOMMENDATION: the thinking woman’s guide to real magic
People Magazine might have said it best: “If Hermoine Granger had been an American who never received an invitation to Hogwarts, this might have been her story.”
In The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic, an average master’s student, Nora, suddenly gets swept away into a world of magic and deception, constantly wading through the sparkling lies that got her there in the first place.
When a chance encounter with an ancient wizard saves her life, she must learn to adapt to the medieval setting she landed in and the murderous fairy queen hunting her down, while not possessing any magical abilities. Since she’s an English major, she has barely any practical skills to rely on either, besides her proclivity for reading.
Nora’s story stands out because of the flaws that plague her magical journey, in contrast to Harry Potter’s neatly polished storylines and fluffy resolutions. She rarely gets things right on the first try and remains inches away from falling into past mistakes at all times. Having dealt with everything from bad breakups to abuse at the hands of a monstrous reptile, Nora possesses a fighting spirit hardened by her experiences throughout the novel.
The veins of betrayal run so deep in this novel that nearly half of it is dedicated to the magical farce that Nora suffers from, tricking the reader into pursuing the same happily ever after that other fantasy novels lean into. You could say the “real magic” is actually in Barker’s untidy telling of this classic fish-out-of-water trope.
Even the supporting characters and love interests revel in an imperfection rarely seen in the fantasy genre. Most authors spring for a plot almost as fanciful and far-fetched as the settings—all edges smoothed, all potholes filled. You won’t get your tidy, unfrayed beginning, middle, end with Barker, but that’s exactly what makes this book so dynamic and special.