I'm honestly shocked this has such mixed reviews, to be honest. It's got a Victorian setting but not in a super realistic way. More of a steampunk/costume fiction sort of way, which lends a fun touch of archaic charm to the setting. Ceony, the heroine, has just graduated from magic school and wanted to be a Smelter who works with fire, but because there's an oversaturation of certain kinds of magics and balance must be kept, she's assigned to be a Folder instead, which is a group of mages who work with paper, the weakest magic.
When she gets to her apprenticeship, she immediately recognizes that her new master is-- ahem-- an eccentric. He's constructed a spooky facade for his home that makes it look like an evil mansion, but then on the other side, there's a garden of paper tulips and he makes it snow paper snowflakes to show her how fun paper can be. He even makes her a living paper dog! Pretty soon, Ceony realizes that not only does the idea of magical origami seem pretty cool after all (WHICH IT IS), Emery, her master, is a pretty stand-up dude and she actually wants to learn paper from him.
But then his evil ex-girlfriend waltzes through the door and LITERALLY steals his heart, which forces her to undergo a terrible journey to confront the worst kind of magic at all: Excision, or flesh magic.
So this is like a Hayao Miyazaki movie in book form, I swear. It's got that same timeless charmless whimsical vibe to it, gilt with enough of a dangerous edge that you don't feel like you're drowning in fluff. Some of the visuals are just incredible and I thought the magic system was really inventive and interesting. I even thought the romance between Ceony and Emery was okay, especially since she isn't actually in love with him, just falling in love with him. And it makes sense that she'd have a crush on the man, given their backstory and how she ends up fighting to make him whole again.
If you enjoy authors like Gail Carson Levine and Diana Wynne Jones, I think this shares a lot of the same characteristics as those sorts of stories. It's a very different sort of fantasy than the kinds that seem to be popular right now, but I actually prefer these more fairytalesque stories of old.
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars