Published by 47North on June 28th 2016
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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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Charlie N. Holmberg’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet was a much darker story than I was expecting. I think maybe that pretty cover fooled me into thinking I was heading into a light, fluffy, and whimsical read. While I did find the read to be whimsical, instead of the light and fluffy, however, I found myself immersed in a tale full of weighty themes and relevant life lessons, the dominant one being that you have to take responsibility for choices that you make because actions have consequences.
Maire is a young woman who learns this lesson the hard way. When the story opens, Holmberg grabs the reader’s attention immediately as she begins to describe Maire. Maire is working as a baker and, curiously enough, has the ability to infuse her baked goods with qualities such as hope, strength, generosity, love – basically whatever qualities she chooses. Those qualities are then passed on to those who eat the baked goods. What makes Maire even more interesting is that she has lost her memory – she has no idea who she is, where she came from, and no memories at all prior to the moment that a woman named Arrice found her in the forest a few years earlier and brought her to her own home to live. Although Maire is somewhat curious about who she is and where she came from, overall she is content with the life she is living and so doesn’t dwell on her true identity too much. Right away I found Maire to be an endearing protagonist, both because of her magic, which she seems to use only to help people, and because the memory loss gives her a human and vulnerable quality. I found myself immediately in her corner, cheering her on, as the real action of the story began.
Holmberg then begins to deftly weave in a few plot twists, the first of which being Fyel. Maire is outside one day when she encounters Fyel, a translucent man all dressed in white, who also has wings of some sort. He tells Maire that he is not from this world, but that he knows who she is and that she must try to remember as well. Many of his remarks are cryptic and he refuses to tell her much more because he says she won’t believe his far-fetched tale and that if she denies the truth, she will be lost to his world forever. He says she must piece the story together herself so that she will believe it.
Maire then becomes obsessed with trying to figure out who she is, but soon after this encounter, we have another plot twist – marauders attack Maire’s village and she is sold into slavery. Strangely enough, her new master Allemas seems to already know who she is and even acts as though he has been searching for her, even though Maire is pretty sure they’ve never met.
The story takes a dark turn at this point because Allemas is a cruel and unpredictable master and Maire does not fare well working for him, especially once he realizes that Fyel has also found Maire. By this point, Maire is desperately trying to figure out who she is, what her connection to Allemas is, and especially what her connection to Fyel is. The second half of the book primarily follows Maire on her journey as she discovers her true identity, how she ended up where she is, and most importantly, as she realized that what happened to her was a direct consequence of choices she made in her other life. Maire’s journey is particularly fascinating in the sense that with each new memory she has about her past, her body undergoes a change as she slowly starts to transform back into what she was before she lost her memory and ended up here.
I did notice a few plot holes here and there as I was reading — things that happen that seem a little too coincidental or even the fact that Maire doesn’t seem to think it’s at all strange that she has this unusual magical baking ability, but I still thought overall this was a great read. While, like the magical baking itself, I’m not sure they really added much to the plot of Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet, I thought Holmberg’s whimsical touches, such as weaving various fairy tales such as Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, and The Gingerbread Man into her story, made the story an immensely fun read. What I really liked though were the darker threads that ran through it. Offsetting those whimsical fairy tales as Maire discovers her true identity, is a dark tale that is reminiscent of both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Book of Genesis in the Bible. I loved the added weight those elements gave to the overall story.
For me, the main weakness of the story was the ending. I felt like there was this huge build up to the reveal of Maire’s identity and then a rush to wrap things up, with years tacked on in an epilogue. I would have liked a little more explanation as to what specifically happened from Maire’s return home to what we see in the epilogue. That part just felt too abrupt for me. Other than that though, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is a book I would recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to children, because even though it has those fun shout outs to familiar fairy tales, I think the darker parts of the story, particularly some things that happen to Maire along the way, would make it too violent and frightening for younger readers.
Thanks so much to Netgalley, 47North, and to Charlie N. Holmberg for allowing me the opportunity to preview this book.
Rating: 3.5 stars