Sorry for the lack of posts–too much going on lately. I’ve got a ton of books I want to recommend, and I just have not been keeping up with posting about them here, so I will see if I can catch up the next week or two… no promises.
The first I want to recommend is Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho is a Malaysian author and lawyer, based in London. Sorcerer is her first book, and the first in a series (so looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming out!!!), but you can check out her website for links to short fiction and interviews if you need more. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can practice law and write at the same time–38 and I’m still trying (and failing) to figure out how to keep space open for both my academic and my creative lives. But more power to her, and I will take inspiration from her example.
Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy set in Regency England–so Jane Austen meets Harry Potter, I guess. OK, sorry, not really… If you’ve heard any buzz about this book, it has probably (apart from the Potter/Austen mashup) been the fact that it has a black male lead and a half-Indian female lead and gets into everything from microaggressions to outright racism to colonial politics. All true, but I find myself frustrated by the fact that this will be taken by many as a “gimmick” (crazy, I know, but Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are a thing)–if we are going to imagine that making a main character a POC and involving racism and colonialism in the plot is gimmicky, well, we are lost. The racial and colonial situation of the book and the two protagonists are perfect material for fictional obstacles and conflicts, and Cho does an excellent job exploiting this throughout. This aspect of the book is explored better than I can manage in Alex Brown’s review at Tor.com, so I will direct you there for a more thorough discussion. Cho notes that she is not interested in turning into a spokesperson/mascot for diversity, and the novel is not in the least preachy–the attention to perspectives and contextual material so often ignored in Western (especially speculative) literature is refreshing–there is serious untapped potential here. I’m reminded of the collection of Southeast Asian steampunk stories I picked up a while back–both fantasy and steampunk have long been ripe for a “The Empire Writes Back” moment (bracketing off for now all the complications involved in postcolonial literature and what exactly constitutes a legitimate subaltern voice), and Sorcerer is one of many excellent contributions in this vein. But again, the novel is not reducible to its relationship to racism and colonialism (or sexism, though it weaves that very realistically into the treatment of women’s magic throughout). Mild spoilers below:
The plot revolves around our two protagonists, sensitive and idealistic Zacharias, a former slave who was rescued and adopted by the former Sorcerer Royal for his magical talent, and pragmatic and proactive Prunella, half Indian and raised in England as an orphan by the mistress of a house for magically gifted women–the point of such a house being to suppress their magic, “for their own safety.” Following a short prelude, we open the story with Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, a position you come into by virtue of being able to bear the staff that goes with the office–and the suspicion among those inclined to suspect those of darker shades is that he has achieved that office only by murdering his mentor, the former Sorcerer Royal. This is complicated not only by the color of Z’s skin, but by the fact that magic, a sort of resource that comes from Fairie, a realm with its own political complications in this story, is on the decline in England, a fact that also tends to be blamed on this unprecedented new Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias remains slightly mysterious to the reader until the end, since the story requires him to keep quiet about so much–a bit frustrating at times, but it does feel necessary for the story and I appreciated Cho’s keeping us in the dark till all is revealed at the end–suspense accomplished. Prunella’s own mysteries are unknown to herself as well as to the audience, and while for much of the novel it feels like Zacharias is the moody, cosmic hero whom the Big Deal plot revolves around, Prunella turns out to be quite a Big Deal herself as she upends the cultural assumptions about “women’s magic,” in many ways eclipsing Zacharias as Special Hero(ine)–and while I think Zacharias is still very lovable and certainly still as much a Big Deal as P in this book, I did appreciate Prunella’s Leia (oh, going to make myself cry…) standing toe-to-toe with Zacharias’ Luke (even snarky, accomplished princesses tend to get displaced by sensitive, special farmboys, alas)–while the book starts with P falling into Z’s orbit, they are a nice binary by the end, and P has her own very real motivations–while they are allies to a degree, she still has her own very distinct story, motivations, and strategies. And while they may at times feel like a very opposite binary pair, I think they go really well together (which I suppose is the point), and I look forward to a more developed romance in the sequels (did I really say that? I must be mellowing with age if I’m wanting more romance in the book… But it may be a mistake to take a continued romance for granted, we’ll see.).
So in summary, I loved the plot and the way in which we are gradually introduced to both the worldbuilding and the character’s secrets, I really loved the two main characters (both as foils and partners), and I felt like Cho very expertly tapped into the potential in the racist/colonial/sexist elements (all entirely realistic, let’s remember–these three things are not fantasy) for compelling plot and characters. I’ve seen reference to occasional “purple prose” in an otherwise positive review–I sometimes felt that way myself, but, while I can’t speak for Cho’s intentions, I feel like (however serious the Big-Deal conflict is in-world) there is enough humor and playfulness to signal that when the prose does get a bit overdone it may be read as part of the game. Well, this is my perspective two months on, so it isn’t really fresh enough in my head to comment. I also listened to it on Audible, and I’m not sure whether I judge things the same when I listen to them–but I will note that the narration is very professional and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve got it on Kindle now and may try a reread soon… but we’ll see. I have too too many books in progress. 😦