Paper Mage is a remarkable debut novel that establishes Leah Cutter as a writer with a future. The very fact that hers is one of the few fantasy novels on the racks today that isn't cut from the same tired old "epic" cloth is praiseworthy enough. Paper Mage is set in Tang Dynasty China, and Cutter's devotion to and enthusiasm for Asian culture — she hasn't merely researched it, she's a world traveler who's lived there — shines through on every page and gives her novel an identity all its own. This is a writer you need to be following.
Our heroine is Xiao Yen, a young girl whose aunt has sent her into training learning the art of paper-folding magic. (Right away, the setting allows Cutter to think well outside the box in establishing the story's fantasy elements.) Xiao Yen's aunt, Wang Tie-Tie, had an encounter when only a young woman with one of the seven immortals that roam the land. This being offered Wang Tie-Tie immortality herself, but she turned him down; regretting her choice, she hopes Xiao Yen will excel at paper magic and have the same opportunity presented to her.
But Xiao Yen's training puts her at odds with the rest of her family, as it flies in the face of accepted roles for women. Xiao Yen ends up in almost constant conflict with her mother, who disapproves strongly of Wang Tie-Tie's wishes for the girl, but cannot defy them due to Wang Tie Tie's position as head of the household. Xiao Yen grows up profoundly lonely.
Through paper magic, Xiao Yen learns to fold delicate and intricate origami-like sculptures of various animals, which she can then bring to life to do her bidding. Xiao Yen receives her first professional appointment as a paper mage, to protect a pair of Scandinavians escorting a young noblewoman who has been promised to a fierce warlord as a kind of bounty. (Cutter injects some amusing east-west culture-clash stuff here.) It turns out that the noblewoman, Bei Xi, is a disguised goddess who intends to destroy said warlord, as he betrayed and murdered Bei Xi's sister, stealing her life force (qi) to empower a shield of invulnerability that protects his heart. Now unstoppable, he intends to invade and conquer the lands Bei Xi and her sister hoped to persuade him to protect. Bei Xi enlists Xiao Yen's aid in recovering the one artifact that can kill this villian...one of her sister's hairpins!
Xiao Yen in no time finds herself confronting some harsh realities as she realizes just what sort of power and evil she is up against. Cutter isn't timid when it comes to putting her characters through the wringer; when it needs to be, Paper Mage can be a tough story. It isn't all lotus blossoms and green tea.
The novel's structure is interesting and counter-intuitive. Cutter intersperses chapters relating the main storyline with those depicting Xiao Yen's childhood and training as a paper mage. Thus, we pretty much have two stories going on, one in the present and the other basically one extended flashback. This does affect the pacing of the novel overall; you'll get to a rather gripping cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, only to be repeatedly thrown back in time before being allowed to continue. So the story moves in fits and starts instead of flowing smoothly from beginning to end. But the childhood chapters are crucial in establishing both Xiao Yen's character and the importance of paper magic itself to the story. And, short of doing the formulaic thing of dealing with all the childhood backstory in one big expository clump at the beginning, I don't see how Cutter could have conveyed this part of the tale as well as she has done. So what the book loses in forward momentum it gains in narrative depth.
There are a few other areas of storytelling where Cutter still needs to gain confidence. She's weak on action. The scene where Xiao Yen must do battle with the rat dragon (do the Chinese have cool monsters or what?) in order to recover the hairpin just lands with a thud. Cutter simply doesn't give it the white-knuckle tension it needs. Also, Cutter's attention to the formalities and manners of Chinese culture sometimes means that her story is a little overly formal and mannered, too.
But her characterization skills are strong, and her willingness to flex her imagination and create a fantasy that doesn't simply follow the well-trodden footsteps of all the others is Cutter's ace in the hole.
There are precious few Western fantasies set in Asia at all (the only other ones that come to mind straight off are Barry Hughart's dazzling Master Li trilogy), so the freshness and relative uniqueness of this novel's milieu is most welcome. Granted, the recent success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could go a long way towards preparing Occidental readers to accept a story like this; had that film not done so well, Paper Mage might have had a harder time finding a publisher despite its merits. But the movie clearly was not an influence on Cutter, who had been preparing this book for years and had rooted the story in her own studies and experience. The connection is just her good luck. And ours.