Nora still felt the bite of envy. She used to be able to do that—sit in a clean, well-lighted room, choose a book from hundreds, start reading, and effortlessly take herself to another world. And now she was actually in another world, and she might never read another book again.[loc. 1916]
Nora Fischer's life isn't quite as she'd like it. Her last relationship ended badly; her dissertation supervisor isn't happy with her thesis (on John Donne and Emily Dickinson); she's still torn up about the death of her brother, four years ago. She is totally not in the mood for her friends' wedding. So she wanders off for a walk, and discovers a deserted graveyard ... and then finds herself in the garden of a splendid mansion, where the beautiful Illisa seems only too happy to welcome Nora. Illisa's son Raclin is romantic, mysterious and attentive. Perhaps a break from quotidian monotony is just what Nora needs: it's certainly what she's wished for...
Suffice to say, no good can come of it. Raclin is not what he seems. The mansion is on the border between contemporary America and a very different world. And Nora, fleeing a monster, crosses the border: it's a one-way trip that leads her to a country straight out of medieval fantasy. The old kind of medieval fantasy, with rampant sexism and insanitary living conditions and hard labour from dawn til dusk.
Nora is rescued, sort of, by the magician Aruendiel, who is scarred, melancholy, sarcastic and misogynistic. Obviously women can't do wizardry (which relies on spirits), much less real magic. Nora must call on her considerable inner reserves (hates Tolkien: loves Jane Austen, and indeed a copy of Pride and Prejudice is her sole memento of her former life) to resist despair.
Actually she doesn't resist despair that well. And I have to say she is not the most likeable of protagonists. (*This* is the 'thinking woman' of the title? Admittedly she has an excuse for being dense in the first part of the novel, but later on I did find myself wanting to cognitively recalibrate her. Still, she does some pretty smart things now and then. And has a nice line in wry asides.)
It *is* a romance (though not a particularly traditional or honeyed one), but it's also a novel about the importance of literature and imagination, and about feminism, and about fairies and demons and ghosts, oh my. I enjoyed it immensely, and didn't mind that the plot sometimes sprawled or that it could have been cut by a fifth without detriment to said plot. Looking forward to Barker's next novel, though the internet is silent on when, or what, that might be.
"...real magic comes out of what is around you, it is born from the long conversation, negotiation, fellowship that human beings have with the things of the world. A god would never give us such a valuable gift. Humans had to learn it for themselves." [loc 7434]