The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

by Emily Croy Barker


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An imaginative story of a woman caught in an alternate world—where she will need to learn the skills of magic to survive

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.

For lovers of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series (The Magicians and The Magician King) and Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780670023660
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.54(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.78(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

After twenty years as a journalist, Emily Croy Barker had great fun turning her writing skills to fiction to produce The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, her first novel. A graduate of Harvard University, she is currently executive editor at The American Lawyer magazine. She lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Much later, Nora would learn magic for dissolving glue or killing vermin swiftly and painlessly or barring mice from the house altogether, but that morning—the last normal morning, she later thought of it—as she padded into the kitchen in search of coffee, she was horribly at a loss when she saw the small brown mouse wriggling on the glue trap in front of the sink.

At the sight of Nora, the mouse froze for an instant, then tried to bolt, but only succeeded in gluing another paw to the sticky cardboard.

“Oh, crap,” Nora said aloud. “I can’t deal with this. Not on top of everything else.”

She was angrier at her roommate Dane, than at the mouse. Almost certainly he was the one who had set the trap, and then hadn’t had the decency to handle the result himself. Besides, the mouse problem was Dane’s fault in the first place. If he had not let Astrophel out—by accident, he claimed— Astrophel would not have attempted to cross six lanes of traffi c, and would still be alive and keeping the house mouse-free. The ashy remains of Nora’s cat now resided in a small cardboard box on Nora’s desk, and the mice had become a scrabbling, bold presence in the house.

She thought about simply letting the trapped mouse remain there for Dane to clean up, but she would have to step over it to fill the coffeepot, and what if the mouse got loose while she was still in the kitchen? Before she could lose her nerve, Nora picked up the glue trap with her thumb and forefinger, and moved toward the garbage can.

But the mouse was still alive. That was disturbing. After a second’s thought, Nora took a bottle of olive oil from the cabinet. The good stuff , Tuscan gold, encased in a tall bottle with a sprig of rosemary suspended inside, and she was fairly sure it belonged to Dane.

Outside, a block from her house, in a sliver of park, she carefully poured olive oil on the mouse and the glue board. The smell of the oil filled her nose; she was suddenly hungry. The mouse, its fur now sleek and dark with oil, rolled back and forth on the glue board. All at once it was loose. Nora jumped back, and the mouse scampered away, leaving shiny drops on the pine needles to mark its trail.

She walked back to the house thinking automatically that she had a good story for Adam, and then remembering that she wouldn’t be telling it to him.

On her way to the English department, she kept an eye out for him anyway. He was still in town, probably, unless he’d gotten an earlier flight. She might bump into him on campus. It would be awkward. Then maybe not so awkward. And he would realize what a terrible mistake he had made.

Instead, when someone spoke her name outside the department lounge, it was her adviser.

“Nora. I haven’t seen you all week.” Naomi smiled, showing an unnatural number of teeth. Nora braced herself, trying as always to find Naomi’s presence empowering instead of terrifying. Naomi was carrying her eight-month-old son in a sling on her chest: Last fall, in a single semester, she had produced both the baby and a book on sexual ambiguity in Dickens. Following Naomi into the lounge, Nora wiggled her fingers at the baby, who gave her a somber gaze out of bottomless dark blue eyes. “Where are the rest of the papers from your Gender and Genre section?” Naomi demanded. “I have only half of them.”

Nora unslung the backpack from her shoulder. “Here they are,” she said.

“I wish you’d finished them sooner. I want to look them over before I turn the grades in.”

“I’m sorry. I had to grade the Modern Drama exams, too. It’s been a busy week.”

“Yes, it has. That’s why I wanted to see those papers earlier.” Naomi leafed through her mail, flicking most of it into the trash and then sliding a thin envelope with Italian stamps into the lustrous leather jaws of her slim briefcase.

It was not the best time to bring up any kind of request, Nora saw, but she had no choice. “Actually, I wanted to mention,” she began, “I decided to apply for that travel fellowship, the Blum-Forsythe grant? I was wondering if you could write a recommendation for me.”

“I thought you weren’t going to apply for that. Can’t you ask Marlene to send out the recommendation that’s on file?”

“I realized there’s some work I could do at Cambridge.” The idea had come to Nora two nights before, as she lay awake at three a.m. The inspiration had less to do with John Donne, her thesis subject, than a sudden need to escape. “The form asks some questions that aren’t covered by the recommendation you wrote for me before. If you tweaked the old recommendation, it should be fine. It just has to be postmarked by Monday.”

Naomi pivoted, a wrinkle of annoyance visible between her strong brows. “You know, I’m boarding a plane Sunday to fl y to London. I don’t know if I’ll have time.”

“Oh,” Nora said awkwardly. “I didn’t realize you were leaving so soon.”

Naomi sighed and ran a hand through her hair, which was growing long, Nora noticed. Naomi usually had it cut on one of her frequent trips to Europe, one of the side benefits of having a boyfriend in London. “Come into my office, Nora. I want a word with you.”

As Nora lowered herself onto the steel- and-leather chair in front of Naomi’s desk, Naomi shut the office door. Nora’s stomach tensed. “I should tell you that if I do write you a new recommendation,” Naomi said, “I don’t know that I’d have anything very positive to add.”

Nora blinked. “Really?”

“I haven’t seen very much from you this year, just the one thesis chapter. It was fine, but you finished it back in November, and here it is May.”

“I wrote that Dickinson paper. ‘Wild Nights: The Erotics of Evasion.’ One of the journals was interested, so I’ve been revising—”

“It’s a good paper, and I’m sure you could publish it. But you shouldn’t be spending time trying to publish a paper so removed from your dissertation topic. I was hoping that I’d see at least one more chapter from you before the end of this school year.”

“Well, I’ve been working hard. I’m just not making much progress.” Nora paused, but Naomi said nothing, so she plunged on. “I’m starting to think—I’m just not sure I can say much that’s new about gender politics in Donne.”

“Nora, when you chose your topic, we discussed the pitfalls of writing about a canonical author like John Donne. It can be difficult to find unplowed ground.”

Hundreds of authors to write about, and yet it seemed that every single one had already been chewed over by packs of other hungry doctoral students. Even poets who had written only a handful of decent poems in their entire lives were the subject of lengthy, arcane, lovingly argued dissertations. And someone good, like Shakespeare or Brontë or Dickinson or Dickens—or Donne? They were mobbed by grad students and professors alike, like pop stars surrounded by screaming groupies.

“Yes, I know,” Nora said. “So I’m wondering whether it might be fruitful to look at another writer, too. I have some ideas about Donne and Dickinson, their comparative poetics, that I’d like to outline for you—”

Naomi held up her hand. “If you really want to write about Dickinson, the emphasis needs to be more American or early modern. Otherwise, you’ll get killed on the job market.”

“But I really am just—” Nora searched in vain for a way to describe the vast, barren desert of thesis research where she had been wandering without a compass. “Just stuck.”

The baby had been fidgeting inside the sling, his starfish arms and legs waving in the air. Now he opened his mouth and began to wail. Nora suppressed an urge to do the same.

“I need to feed him,” Naomi said, unsnapping the pouch, “and then I have a meeting with the dean, and then I’m going home to pack. So I’m sorry, I don’t have time to finish this conversation. We’ll talk after I get back in July.”

Nora nodded. “Sure.”

“If you want to e-mail me that Donne and Dickinson idea while I’m away, I’ll take a look at it.” She sounded less than enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Okay, I will. Thanks.” Nora stood up, picking up her backpack. “Enjoy London.”

Naomi looked up from behind her immaculate desktop. “Nora, I agreed to be your adviser because you’re very, very good—in some areas. You’re one of the best close readers of poetry I’ve ever worked with. You have a real knack for understanding the life of a poem. Fifty years ago, that would have gotten you a doctorate, a job, and tenure at any English department in the country. But today that’s not enough. You have to be able to address a big question—something to do with aesthetics, or colonialism, or philosophy—what it is doesn’t matter so much, but you need to play at that level. And that’s where you’re having problems.”

“I know, I know. Big questions aren’t my strong point.” In fact, Nora had plenty of questions, just less and less assurance that she could ever formulate answers to them. She added, a little desperately: “No ideas but in things.”

“Well, that has to change,” said Naomi, unbuttoning her linen blouse.

Nora closed the office door, but not before getting a glimpse of the baby’s mouth closing urgently on Naomi’s brown nipple.

Heading for the library, she checked her phone and found a message from her mother. “Nora, I was hoping you might be able to drive up this weekend. We’re going to the beach, and then to a fellowship dinner that you would really enjoy—”

She skipped to the next message, from her father’s number in New Jersey. Nora’s youngest sister’s voice, high and cheerful: “Hi, Nora, how are you? It’s me. Teacher shirk day, I have to go with Mom to her work, boring boring. I looked for those books of yours you said were in the attic, but I couldn’t find them. Do you know where else they might be? I need something to read. Bye.”

Ramona wasn’t looking hard enough. Nora could picture the box, left of the attic stairs, near EJ’s things. She was in the middle of leaving her own message when she walked smack into Farmer Dahmer, literally collided with him, right in front of the library.

Farmer Dahmer— as in Jeffrey—wasn’t his name, but almost everyone on campus, even the senior faculty, knew whom you were talking about if you mentioned Farmer Dahmer. He was a small man, around sixty, with a stiff, gray-brown beard like the wire pads used to scrub out sinks. He usually wore a faded plaid shirt, which Nora assumed was the origin of the agricultural portion of his nickname. Rumor had it that he was a superannuated grad student who had gone crazy after being unable to complete his thesis. Nora no longer found this story as amusing as she once had. He spent most of his days hanging around the library, where she had often seen him bent over a sheaf of papers in a carrel, swaying back and forth, mumbling to himself.

Farmer Dahmer looked even more stunned than Nora at their collision, and for a moment she was afraid that he would topple over. “I’m so sorry,” she said, clutching his arm. “Are you all right? I can’t believe I didn’t see you. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh, it’s you,” he said to her, blinking his small eyes.

“Um, yes,” Nora said uncertainly. “It’s me, all right. Are you okay?”

With a jerk of his arm, he shook himself free of Nora’s grasp. “Oh, I’m fine. Thanks to you. I very much appreciate it.”

“There’s no need to be sarcastic. I really do apologize.”

“No, I blame my own carelessness. You see, I was very hungry, and when I smelled the peanut butter, I simply forgot to be cautious.”

She nodded, unable to think of a proper response.

Farmer Dahmer’s head swiveled from side to side, as though he were reading something in the figures of passing students or the grass and oak trees of the quad. Then he looked back at Nora. “I suppose you want the usual reward. Is three enough for you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Don’t worry,” she said, shaking her head vigorously so that there would be no mistake. “I’m just happy to know that you’re okay.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” he said. “Let’s do the thing properly, shall we?” He squared his shoulders and gave her a brisk nod, then turned and marched away, disappearing around the side of the student union.

What a day, Nora thought, rubbing her head. She noticed for the first time the rich smell of olive oil mingled with rosemary hanging in the air. Hell, she must have spilled that stuff on her clothes this morning. She must reek. What had Naomi thought?

She went into the library and spent a few hours finishing up the Blum- Forsythe application. In the air-conditioned quiet of the stacks on the twelfth floor, where she had her carrel, the scent of olive oil and rosemary faded, much to her relief.

Heading home, she took the long way, past Adam’s favorite coffeehouse, the one where he used to hold his office hours when he was a teaching assistant because he couldn’t smoke in his assigned cubbyhole in the English department. Of course he was not sitting there now. Why would he be? Not running into him was a clear sign from the heavens that whatever had existed between her and Adam was over, finished for good, the invisible karmic connection between them severed and tied off forever.

She said aloud, but softly: “I wish I could see him again, though.”

Maggie picked her up at four for the drive to the wedding in the mountains. That was a relief. Someone to tell about this nightmare of a week.

“Oh, you’re kidding,” Maggie said, when Nora had gotten only partway into her story, as they shot into the I-40 traffic. “He flew all the way back here just to break up with you? And you really thought he was going to ask you to marry him. That’s so awful.”

“He said he had something big to tell me, and he wanted to tell me in person.”

“Well, that’s big.”

“And he is getting married. Just not to me,” Nora clarified.

“And who is this woman?”

“Another assistant professor there. An art historian. The French baroque—”

“Oh, God.”

“—and they got to be friends, and it was all very casual, and then they went away for the weekend, an art exhibition in New York—”

“You don’t just go away for the weekend with a casual friend!”

“I know,” Nora said miserably. “He told me all this right after I picked him up at the airport. He wouldn’t shut up about her. As though I cared. And then he apologized and said he’d been meaning to tell me, but he didn’t want to do it over the phone. And he said he had other friends in town to see. So that’s when I said, well, maybe you can stay with one of them. I haven’t seen him since.” Maggie nodded her approval, but Nora grimaced. “Well, I kept thinking I’d see him and somehow we’d work it out, but he hasn’t called, nothing.

“Oh, and then just to top it off,” she added, “this morning my adviser gave me the something-has-to-change talk. One step away from the what-are-you-still-doing-here talk. My career and my love life, both going up in flames.”

“Oh, honey.” Maggie leaned over suddenly to give Nora a hug. The car veered toward the median for an instant, which made the gesture less reassuring than she intended. “Well, fuck it. So what if grad school doesn’t work out? There are plenty of other options. You should open your own restaurant and be a celebrity chef. I mean it. That toffee soufflé you made, my God.”

Nora was silent, thinking again about her morning’s conversation with Naomi. Unofficial probation, that’s what she was on, even if Naomi hadn’t used those words. All at once she missed Adam more than ever. He had brilliant political instincts; he knew exactly how to soothe and beguile the most implacable thesis adviser. Nora wasn’t sure how she’d get by without Adam’s coaching, not to mention his protective aura. He’d been such a star in the department that some of his prestige had invisibly accrued to her, too. She wondered suddenly how far news of their breakup had spread. Did Naomi know? Yes, Nora thought, or she would have asked me about him this morning. She always did before.

“You sure you want to go to this thing?” Maggie was saying. “Weddings are no fun when you’re newly single, not by choice—that’s my experience.”

Nora shrugged. “It’s okay. How can I not go to Luca’s wedding, anyway?”

“Any chance that Adam will be there?”

“No, he’s flying back tonight. He wanted to spend the weekend with his fiancée.” Nora grimaced as she spoke the last word.

“Bastard. Well, maybe you’ll meet someone this weekend. And there’ll be lots to drink. Forget about Adam.”

“Just what I’m planning to do.”

Which made it all the more disconcerting, at the party following the rehearsal dinner, to turn and find Adam standing a few feet away. He had a beer in his hand, and he was having a desultory conversation with a couple of law students, friends of Maggie’s. He looked vaguely ill at ease even before he saw Nora.

“What are you doing here?” he asked her.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said. “I thought you were back in Chicago.”

He shook his head. “Couldn’t change my flight. I’m going back Sunday.”

“So you decided to come to this thing after all.”

“Well, yes. I was invited. Is that a problem?”

“No, I’m just surprised to see you here.”

“You shouldn’t be. I’ve known Chris and Luca a long time. About time they got married.” He took a swig of beer.

Nora bit her lip. “They started dating a month after we did.”

“Really? I thought they’d been together longer.”

“No, I remember. We saw them at that French movie, Amélie.”

“God, that was a terrible movie.”

“I liked it.”

“Really?” Nora knew the expression on his face well: Adam enjoying the sense of his own superior judgment. Other, more benighted people had always inspired that look—never her. Then he seemed to recollect himself: “Well, good for you. How are you doing?”

“Very well, thank you.”

“Good.” For an instant, his eyes practically shone with sincerity. “I’m glad. I was a little worried, you know, after the other night.”

Nora wanted to believe him. A man may smile and smile and be a villain. “No, you weren’t. You would have called me if you were.”

“I did call you. Couple of times.”

She shook her head. “I would have seen your number.”

They went around and around, until it emerged that Adam had dialed the wrong number, manually. He had a new phone, the kind that knew everything, but he had not bothered to enter her number.

“I see,” Nora said grimly. “Well, as you can tell, I’m just fine.”

“Good.” He started to turn away, then swung back. “You know, I still care about you.”

She closed her eyes for a moment. “I care about you, too.”

“You may not want to hear this right now, but I mean it in the best possible way, believe me. When Celeste and I get married this fall, I hope you can be there. I mean it. October sixteenth.”

A few days ago, waiting for Adam in the airport, Nora had been thinking about wedding dates, wondering if October would be too soon. It wasn’t as though she’d want a huge, elaborate wedding. “Thank you, Adam,” she said now, smiling, with as much dignity as she could muster. “That’s awfully”—she considered and rejected a number of words, settling for a relatively bland and obvious choice that she hoped would trouble Adam anyway—“stupid of you.”

She turned and plunged into the crowd. The party was a large, loose affair: It flowed through the house, which belonged to one of the bride’s relatives, and onto the rambling cedar decks wrapped around the outside. Plenty of room to retreat.

Nora refilled her wineglass, then topped it up again and again. The alcohol began to make her feel blurry as she drifted from one group to the next, never quite finding her way into the conversation. But the recollection of her encounter with Adam remained razor-sharp. She kept looking for him—to avoid him, she told herself. Once she looked up and saw him looking at her from across the deck. He turned away without acknowledging her.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek, she told herself. Ducking away, she found herself in a room where a cluster of partygoers were watching an old episode of The Avengers. She plunked herself on a couch— grateful for its solidity, although her surroundings continued to wobble slightly—and watched John Steed and Emma Peel battle evil, he in a morning coat, she in a catsuit, exchanging arch bons mots. Why can’t real love be debonair and fun? she wondered.

After a while, she noticed that the man in the chair next to her was looking at her more than at the television. He addressed an occasional remark to her, and laughed when she did. When someone turned the lights up for a moment, she saw that his eyes were a bright green, like traffic lights. She took it as a good omen. They kept talking after someone turned the TV off. His name was Dave, he was in the history department, but he wanted to know about her life outside of grad school. She told him about being a cook after college. An organic café with locally sourced, seasonal menus; Nora made it to sous-chef. “It was fun for a while. But, God, so much work.”

“I hear you,” he said. “I waited tables in college. Whenever I get fed up with sitting in a library, I make myself remember what it was like to be on my feet carrying trays until midnight. So you decided to do something more intellectually challenging, huh?”

“For some reason I thought that would be grad school.” He laughed at that, and they started kissing soon afterward. Dave’s lips were softer than she liked, but that was okay. It was the first time she had kissed someone else besides Adam in almost four years. She hoped hazily that he would come into the room and see her with Dave. Doing just fine, thank you.

Dave’s phone rang. The ring tone was Rod Stewart: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Dave jolted away from Nora. Putting the phone to his ear, he turned, moving toward the door, but Nora still heard more of the conversation than she wanted to.

“Your girlfriend?” she asked when he came back.

He nodded, looking uncomfortable. “Sorry, we just broke up. But she keeps calling me.”

Looking at him, Nora was fairly sure he wasn’t telling the whole truth to someone—Nora, his girlfriend, or himself. “Well, fuck,” she said, hitting the arm of the couch. “Call her back. She wants to talk to you.”

He made a face. “She’s just emotional.”

“Maybe she has a right to be.”

“Don’t be that way, Norma. It’s not that big a deal.”

Nora, and yes, it is a big deal.”

She had to wait around for a while until she could get a ride back to the house where she and Maggie were staying. That meant having to avoid both Adam and Dave. She skulked on the deck in the darkness with a Coke, pretending to look at the invisible view over the mountains.

Back in her room, Nora undressed quickly. In the mirror, she saw her brown roots were showing. On some women that was sexy. Nora was not one of them. She tried not to imagine what Celeste looked like.

October 16. How extraordinarily dense of Adam to invite her to the wedding. And Adam always so careful—even calculating—about everything he said. That was what really hurt. He wasn’t even trying. He had written her off .

She slid under the sheet. My life is a catastrophe, she thought, shutting her eyes.

Lately, for reassurance, Nora had taken to reminding herself of John Donne’s own checkered employment history—his unfinished legal training; the government job he was fired from; the long search for preferment— before he finally found success and security in holy orders. But even at the beginning he had been writing those intricate, intimate poems of passion and thought. Nora was almost thirty, and what did she have to show for herself?

Turning restlessly in bed, she thought: Naomi is right, I don’t fit in, I’m all wrong for this. I can’t do anything right. Well, maybe saving the life of that mouse today. And it’s probably already back in my kitchen, eating my food. I wish my life were different. I don’t care how.

She woke early, her mouth dry from all the alcohol she’d drunk the night before. In the other bed, Maggie was still asleep. Nora pulled on a T-shirt and jeans and went quietly out of the room.

The cabin that she and Maggie and four other wedding guests were renting for the weekend perched on the mountainside, at the end of a long gravel driveway lined with rhododendrons. She peered out of the living room window. It had rained during the night, but the sky was clear now. The wedding was not until five. People had talked about driving to Asheville for brunch. So far she was the only one up. Nora made herself some coffee and ate half a bagel, then stepped onto the deck outside. Chilly for May. She thought she might walk down to the road for some exercise, but then she noticed the trail leading up the mountain. She went back inside for a sweatshirt. Out of habit, she stopped by the bookshelf in the living room to see if there was a paperback that she could stuff into her pocket for emergencies—you never knew when you might need a book to entertain and comfort and distract you in the day’s empty places.

There was not much to choose from. She passed on the Robert Ludlum and a couple of the Dune books in favor of a yellowed paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice that had originally cost fifty cents. Privately Nora agreed with Charlotte Brontë that Jane Austen’s world was too manicured for sustained interest, but on the other hand you could always dip in and find something amusing on almost any page. Besides, she had to teach the novel in summer school next month.

No reason to leave a note. She would be back in half an hour. Nora went outside and started up the path. At first it tunneled through more rhododendrons, but the forest brightened when she reached a stand of hardwoods, skinny gray poles, newly leafed out. There was almost no undergrowth at this time of year, only dead leaves covering the ground as far as she could see.

After the novelty of walking somewhere that wasn’t a street or a campus path had worn off, Nora began to find the upward-sloping, dun-colored landscape monotonous. She was wondering whether to head back when suddenly the path leveled off and she stepped out of the woods onto grass.

A fragment of conversation from the party last night came back to her. So this was what Chris’s cousin meant by the Bald. The crown of the mountain was an immense green meadow. A few steps forward, and Nora had a 360-degree view of the undulating horizon, mountains rising in all directions.

She walked across the meadow, feeling her heart lift in spite of herself. Ye visions of the hills, and souls of lonely places. Nora found herself smiling. She had the absurd thought—she squelched it quickly—that she could bring Adam up here to show him this place.

Nora turned back when she reached the other side of the hilltop. It was going to rain again, she saw with regret; gray clouds were looming in the west. Otherwise, she would have been tempted to sit down and read for a while. She retraced her steps across the meadow. There was no sign of the trail where she thought it should be, but she reasoned that if she followed the edge of the woods, she was bound to come across the path, even if she had to circle the entire mountaintop.

The first raindrops hit her face as she walked along. Still no path. She walked faster. After a few minutes, she saw a gap in the trees and what looked like the beginnings of a path.

But was it the right one? There might be several paths. A disturbing thought crystallized: If she took the wrong trail down, she could wind up on the other side of the mountain, miles from where she wanted to be.

Oh, well, she thought as the rain began to pelt down, I can go a little way and see whether it looks familiar.

She started down the path. Had the trail been this slick, this steep before? Almost immediately she slipped and fell in a patch of cold mud. Her right ankle protested when she tried to get to her feet. Nora cursed herself. Accidents like this were precisely why she should have left a note at the cabin. Well, someone— Maggie, perhaps— would eventually notice if she didn’t show up for brunch or the wedding or the reception. After a minute, Nora tried again to stand, and this time she was able to pull herself upright. So far so good. The ankle was sore, but it would take her weight. Well, she thought, I wasn’t planning to do much dancing tonight anyway.

She found a stick to lean on, and began limping down the mountain. The forest here was full of spindly young trees like the ones that she had passed on the way up, but she couldn’t tell whether they were the same trees. It was darker here than on the mountaintop, and the woods were full of soft pattering noises, rain smacking leaves. After ten minutes of slow progress, Nora had to admit that she still had no clue as to whether she was on the right path or not.

She had just about decided to turn around and retreat when something ahead caught her eye. Instantly she knew that she had taken the wrong trail. I would have remembered that, she thought.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Centered on more adult concerns than the Harry Potter books, Barker’s debut is full of allusions to dark fairy tales and literary romances.  If Hermione Granger had been an American who never received an invitation to Hogwarts, this might have been her story.”
People Magazine

"A marvelous plot, clever dialogue, and complex characters distinguish The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic. With the intimacy of a classic fairy-tale and the rollicking elements of modern epic fantasy, Emily Croy Barker’s delightful debut will sweep readers into another world. Fun, seductive, and utterly engrossing, this wonderful tale of magic and adventure is a perfect escape from humdrum reality."
Deborah Harkness,author of the All Souls Trilogy

"To read The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic is to enter a lush, fantastical dream filled with beauty and strangeness, love and cruelty, playfulness and gravitas. Emily Barker has crafted a wholly imaginative and witty debut novel that is unlike any I've read. Mind candy for those of us raised on Harry Potters!"
Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“Think of this book as Hermione Granger: The Grad School Years. An entertaining tale capably told.”

“Barker weaves together classic fantasy and romantic elements (including shout-outs to Pride and Prejudice and hints of Wuthering Heights) to produce a well-rounded, smooth, and subtle tale.”
Publishers Weekly

"Like in Harkness’s work, as the novel closes, Barker leaves Nora poised on the brink of a decision that could lead to another adventure. This reviewer can’t wait. . . . Readers who love magical fantasy adventures with strong female protagonists will enjoy Barker’s novel. And fans of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians may also want to try this.
Library Journal

"This dark fairy tale has plenty of curb appeal for a wide range of fantasy, time-travel, and alternate-reality fans."

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is a medieval fairy tale with a deliciously dark twist . . . a thoroughly enchanting read. . . . Barker has spun a clever, lush yarn that is uniquely its own.”

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic embraces many of the things that make portal stories so perennial, with just enough twists that it seems to be in conversation with some of its forebears . . . and . . . suggest[s] deeper issues of power and gender waiting to be explored.”

"Emily Croy Barker has written a sophisticated fairy tale that has one foot through the looking glass and the other squarely planted in the real world. Both classic and wholly original, The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic is an imaginative synthesis of the stories that delighted us as children and the novels that inspired us as adults."
Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street

“'I wish my life were different. I don’t care how.' So begins perpetual grad student and recently jilted Nora Fischer’s grand adventure into a wonderfully imaginative world of illusion and real magic that reveals the importance of a curious and open mind, learning and love. Author Emily Croy Barker has great fun toying with our ever-shifting notions of work, beauty, belonging, and reality—creating a delightful book for anyone longing to escape the everyday (and who isn’t?!)."
Karen Engelmannauthor of The Stockholm Octavo

“A clever and scrumptious debut fantasy, the kind you happily disappear into for days.”
—Kelly Link
author of Magic for Beginners

Reading Group Guide


With her dissertation stalled and her ex-boyfriend engaged to another woman, Nora Fischer finds herself flailing. While suffering through a friend's wedding weekend, Nora wanders into the woods to clear her head and somehow discovers a portal that transports her away from her current misery into a world unlike anything she's known before.

There, Nora meets a mysterious and powerful woman named Ilissa and her suave son, Raclin. Nora is seduced by the excitement of this new realm, and she tumbles headlong into a passionate romance with Raclin. The wondrous veneer soon fades though, and Nora realizes she's not only caught in a strange, foreign land but she has been thrust into an age-old power struggle between Ilissa, Raclin and their nemesis, the magician Aruendiel.

When Nora finds her life in danger, it is Aruendiel who comes to her rescue and who reluctantly agrees to mentor her in the spells and magic that she'll need to survive in this new and perilous world. Despite Aruendiel's reclusive, acerbic nature, Nora begins growing closer to him. As her spell-casting skills grow, Nora encounters plenty of magical characters including a former witch-priestess-turned magician and her dangerous pet, a wizard with literary ambitions, and an ice demon whose deadly hunger is tamed only by poetry. As the land readies for war, Nora is alone at a crossroads with a decision to make: stay in this realm of magic or return to her own world?

Emily Croy Barker has written a richly imagined debut that is steeped in the literature of fantasy, fairy tale, and classic fiction. Readers will find all sorts of homages in The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic-from Beauty and the Beast, to Alice in Wonderland, to classic journeys to the underworld. And they will fall for Nora, who is indeed a thinking woman's heroine: smart, quirky, witty, and best of all, very real.


A graduate of Harvard University, Emily Croy Barker has been a magazine journalist for more than twenty years. She is currently executive editor at The American Lawyer. This is her first novel. She lives in New Jersey.


Which of the characters in The Thinking Woman's Guide To Real Magic did you most enjoy writing?

Aruendiel, no question. He says exactly what he thinks, and he doesn't mind giving offense to anyone. Not something that most of us can get away with in our daily lives. Of course, Ilissa was also a lot of fun, too. Because she's also honest-Faitoren can't tell lies-but at the same time, she's thoroughly deceitful.

Are any parts of this novel autobiographical?

You mean, is it about the time I stumbled into an alternate world and started studying magic? Sadly, no.

There were things in my life that I deliberately borrowed for the novel. The way Aruendiel talks about other magicians-I was thinking of how my father, who was a painter, used to talk with his artist friends about other artists, about who was doing good work and who wasn't. My dad was the kindest and most gentle person ever, but he was ruthless when it came to criticizing bad art. It's the idea that you have a calling that you have to follow and you don't sell out.

I gave Nora some of my interests-a penchant for memorizing bits of poetry, a love of cooking-although she's much better at both things than I am. She's also braver than me. You could never get me to go up a cliff like the one at Maarikok, even with a levitation spell! And I let her take a path that I considered but never took-going to grad school in English.

How did you invent the world in The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic? Did you make a map at any point?

To be honest, I didn't spend too much time trying to chart the world of the novel, at least not initially. I sketched some very rough maps of Aruendiel's castle and the land immediately surrounding it-the orchard, the river, the village, the forest-so that my characters wouldn't get lost as they went about their daily business. And I had a very general map in my head of the kingdom of Semr and the surrounding lands, but I didn't put it down on paper because I didn't want to be distracted from the real job at hand, trying to make this imaginary world come alive with words.

I spent more time thinking about the details of the world. What the landscape looks like, the trees, the hills, the geology. What sort of food people grow and eat. The weather. How society is organized politically. The technology-it seemed to me that if you have wizards and magicians to take care of various complicated or annoying tasks, and they're all doing the bidding of various kings or warlords, then you're probably not going to have much in the way of scientific or engineering advancement, certainly nothing that benefits the mass of people. So, horses for transportation; fire for warmth and light; goods made by hand by artisans, etc. Although I wasn't trying to write a medieval fantasy, I ended up with a world that I admit does have a medieval flavor.

Nora is swept away into a kind of too-good-to-be true existence, and even though a part of her knows it isn't right, she stays with Ilissa and Raclin until it's almost too late. Have you ever been in a similar situation (sans magic)?

Nothing as bad as what Nora goes through! Of course, we all have the capacity for self-delusion-in love, in work, in all kinds of things. Nora, though, gets in pretty deep. She's immersed in this wonderful dream, and then she doesn't want to give it up, even when Aruendiel tells her it's an illusion. What Nora experiences here is the dark side of imagination and fantasy-total separation from the real world, leading to a loss of self.

One of my friends who read the book saw the Faitoren enchantment as a metaphor for addiction. I didn't intend that consciously, but I thought that was a very interesting interpretation.

If you could have the ability to use magic in our world, would you want it?

Absolutely. Not necessarily for the sake of having magical powers-although I suppose you could get used to that-but for being able to relate to the world the way magicians do. It would be really cool to be able to walk in the woods the way Aruendiel does and have the trees recognize and greet you and perhaps even converse with you in a kind of silent, secret language.

How did you develop Ors, the language Nora must learn in order to communicate?

I didn't work out any kind of comprehensive grammar or vocabulary for Ors, but I did think a lot about what kind of language it was and how it might be different from or similar to the languages of our world. For instance, we have lots of informal rules in English that tell you something about a speaker's social status or age or background. I'm thinking of things like the way teenagers will often use a rising inflection at the end of their sentences-so that everything sounds like a question? So in a society where women have a subordinate role, it seemed likely that the language that women speak might be slightly different grammatically from the language that men speak. Nora doesn't realize this until Aruentiel explains it to her, though. Then she's furious.

There are a number of literary references in the novel-Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, William Carlos Williams, among others. Do you share some of Nora's favorite authors? What made you choose the authors you did?

Oh, yes, these are all favorites of mine, and in fact a few of them I like much more than Nora does. She's a little snobbish about Tolkien, for example, which I think reflects her grad school orientation.

Mostly I chose to quote lines of poetry that reflected Nora's thoughts and feelings; they were all from canonical English and American poems that she would have come across in her studies. She seems to be especially fond of Elizabethan and metaphysical poets-which makes sense, given that her thesis is on John Donne-but she also likes the early moderns: Dickinson, Williams, Stevens. Some of these quotations were scraps of poetry that I remembered myself, with varying degrees of clarity; others I came across as I was writing the novel and realized, aha, I can use this.

As I was trying to figure out which book Nora would translate for Aruendiel, I decided that Pride and Prejudice would be a good reference point for many readers. It also echoes some of the elements of Nora's relationship to Aruendiel without recapitulating it too closely.

Did any other book help to shape your novel?

Many books! Most of them were not models that I chose deliberately, but as I look back, I can see their influence in what I wrote. To single out a few: I believe it was Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that made me consider writing about magicians in the first place. J. K. Rowling showed me how to write fantasy with a little bit of irony and understated humor. And then I found myself thinking of Jane Eyre-which I must have read at least once a year when I was between the ages of twelve and twenty-as I wrote about Nora coming to live with Aruendiel, becoming his pupil, and finding herself more and more intrigued with this strange, complicated man.

You make an interesting distinction between wizards and magicians in this book. Which would you rather be?

A magician, definitely. I'm with Aruendiel-I wouldn't want to be dependent upon ghosts and demons for my magic.

The novel ends with a strong hint that Nora and Aruendiel's story will continue. Are you working on a sequel?

Yes, I'm about halfway through a first draft. We haven't heard the last of Nora and Aruendiel yet.

You've been a journalist for more than twenty years. How was the experience of writing a novel different from that of journalistic writing?

In some ways, writing a novel is very much the same as writing a magazine feature. The prose has to be taut and the story has to move at a good pace. It's helpful to have a definite point of view, intriguing characters, and of course a compelling narrative. What's different is that you have so much more freedom to invent, to go inside the heads of your characters, to be creative in how you use language. Also, it's really intoxicating to be able to write page after page of dialogue after having been restricted to quoting only what you can verify people said on a given occasion. These are all really powerful tools, and I had to spend a fair amount of time learning to use them correctly.


  • Nora proves particularly adept at magic. Is there something about her personality that makes her a good magician?
  • Would you rather be a wizard or a magician?
  • Aruendiel never tells Mrs. Toristel that he is her great-great-grandfather, though Nora urges him to. Nora never tells her, either. Did Nora do the right thing? Would you withhold a secret like that from a friend or family member?
  • When Aruendiel brings Massy's little girl back to life, he turns Massy into an apple tree so she can feed her children. Was this a fitting punishment for the woman?
  • After the ice demon has sucked Dorneng's soul, Nora takes care of him (though he has just tried to kill her) rather than abandon him. Would you do the same?
  • When Aruendiel is trapped by an invisible prison, Nora uses math to break the spell. Are math and science the equivalent of magic in our world?
  • Nora translates Pride and Prejudice into Ors. Discuss the role of the novels and poems that appear in this book. What do they mean to Nora?
  • When Aruendiel casts the observation spell, Nora is able to see her family. Would you stay in a magical world separated from your family physically if you could communicate with them through such a spell?
  • Did you want to know more about the mysterious Kavareen? Would you trust it?
  • If you were to learn real magic, who would you rather have as your teacher, Aruendiel or Hirizjahkinis? Why?
  • Does Aruendiel change over the course of the book? Has he learned anything from Nora by the end?
  • Were you rooting for Aruendiel and Nora to get together at the end? Or Nora and Perin?
  • At the end of the book Raclin's ring is still on Nora's finger. Do you think she will return to the world of magic?
  • Customer Reviews

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    The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 50 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book! Hands down one of the best things I've read this past year! I couldnt put it down! If you love The Magicians, The Discovery of Witches, & Harry Potter you will love this too! I can it wait for the sequel!
    j-mom More than 1 year ago
    Loved story line , pace, and characters. Hope there is #2 in the pipeline.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book, it is so creative and captivating. I didnt want it to end, I hope she writes a sequel!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    More please!!! Loved it, couldn't put it down.
    irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
    Involved--But Worth It. This is a novel which is going to take a chunk of time to read; it's involved and extremely detailed. However, those are not bad elements. This is a wonderfully imaginative novel--so much so it is rather mind boggling. Tipping her hat to everything from 'Alice in Wonderland' to Harry Potter, Narnia, and Tolkien, Barker has crafted an incredible epic starring a Ph.D. candidate whose life is a mess. Nora's boyfriend has dumped her; her dissertation is stalled; her cat has bee run over--and all she wishes is that her life was different. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Stumbling into another world, one dominated by magic and wizardry, Nora is forced to come of age. While this will keep you up to the wee hours, it is not necessarily a quick read; Barker's world is dense. There are endless characters and plotlines--to the point they are sometimes hard to keep straight. While the author's place and character names are extremely creative, they are also extremely hard to pronounce at times. While we learn endless details about this magical world and how its people live, its societies operate (sexism runs rampant), there are definitely chunks that drag; it could use some editing. And while there are those that keep insisting upon comparing this to the 'Discovery of Witches' trilogy--I really do not see it except for the idea of 'young woman immersed in magical world.' This is beautifully written, starkly/wildly original with a heroine who, while not always totally likeable, is given a true arc of character development. Barker makes not only Nora a real person but this incredible world real as well. I have NEVER found that in either of the 'All Souls' novels. Additionally, the romance here is tension-filled, understated, and smacks of a real relationship. Those readers looking for the ridiculous (and icky) over the top sexual fantasies of a 'Twilight' or 'All Souls'--between beyond gorgeous people--need not look here. This is a romance between two very physically and emotionally damaged people that is more a meeting of the minds than of the bodies. Also--anyone looking for neatly tied up plotlines will be disappointed; I cannot help but think there has to be a sequel here. Several characters' fates are left uncertain; Nora's final choices seem rushed, and that relationship with her mentor, Arundiel, seems to have unfinished business. What I like most about this is that the title really is true--this IS a thinking woman's novel full of fantastic worlds, beautiful writing, all sorts of literary allusion...a really amazing debut that I really hope has a follow up.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I thought that this book was exceptional. It was very different from many books I have read before in a very good way! I can not wait for the sequel!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Why would I have to read this book now after all the very long reviews full of plot spoilers. Iaccidentally read one and now know the whole story. So I shall look elsewhere for a fantasy story where I won't find reviews that tell me everything!!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I had a difficult time putting this down, I really liked this new approach, I sure hope there is a sequel.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The book was a really great read. I found the story to be engaging and held my interest. I highly recommend the book. I hope the author writes a sequel.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Starts slowly, but gets better. I feel like it ended abruptly. Is there a sequel?
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Fun read. Nora is a well developed character. The interplay of good vs evil magic was well done. The evil characters were believable and not overdone.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    While a bit slow going at times (it bears a surprising resemblance to the works of Jane Austin ;)), this book is well plotted, and the ending leaves a door wide open for a sequel... One can only hope.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Was disappointed. Long on descriptions. Kept reading--hoping things would get better. Left it open to sequel, I guess.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Great book, I could not put it down, I was completely spellbound and drawn into the story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I really wanted to love this. I loved the first 1/3 of the book, but then it got incredibly boring, and I tried- but I just couldn't make it through. For the record, if you're looking for a good supernatural story (or saga), I would highly recommend the Shade of Magic Series by V.E Schwab (and the rest of her books), The Greisha Trilogy by Barduga, and The Discovery of Witches trilogy by Deborah Harkness (4th in the making right now)
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I hope there is a second book coming, because I thoroughly enjoyed this one by the end of it. That being said, it was a little slow moving at times. I wish there was more social interaction, romance and magic, but well written and worth the read!!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    There better be a sequel! This book was absolutely fantastic!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Well written, clever & very long. Overall good read!
    JudyBookLover More than 1 year ago
    This is a great story! I really loved this story of a modern woman Nora who gets lost in a kind of fairy-tale world where she is forced to marry an evil prince. Then she is rescued by a magician who frightens her at first, but then when he begins to teach her magic, their friendship grows. She has a talent for magic and magic is used for many things in this alternate reality - I feel like the author really thought about the world she was creating. A real respect grows between Nora and her magician too which is wonderful to read about. There's much more going on than that but no spoilers here! A lot of it is very funny too. Reminds me of the TV show Outlander - I have not read those books - but similar idea - a woman lost in time. I really hope the author, Emily Barker, writes a sequel!
    SaraRoseGA More than 1 year ago
    As someone who grew up on fairy tales I spent the first few chapters a bit frustrated with the main character for not realizing what was going on, but if you feel the same way, I'd encourage you to stick with it because they lay the foundation for the rest of the story and it does change and pick up. By the end of this book I was extremely storry to find that it was published several years ago and all I've been able to find is that the author's working on the sequel and there's no release date for it yet that I can find. It's also a grown-up story without being inappropriate for (especially older) teens to read. Overall, I very much enjoyed this story and have my fingers crossed that when the sequel comes out it will be as well-crafted and enjoyable.
    gotquidditch More than 1 year ago
    If you have a penchant for the fantastic and incredibly well-done worldbuilding, then you absolutely must read Emily Croy Barker's "The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic." I haven't been so transported by a book since the Potter series, and I turned the final page with the same sense of excitement and horror. Thrill for the wild and wonderful ride I'd just been on, and terror at the prospect of not being able to go again until the next book. Barker's mastery of the written world will leave you certain that magic exists, and she's the greatest witch of them all. I can't wait for the next installment!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Rexcatz More than 1 year ago
    I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the rest of the series. No, it's not Harry Potter and it's not The Magicians, but if you like those sorts of books, you might enjoy this book as well.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago