In the fantasy genre, the medieval period of European history has always taken center stage. Perhaps it’s the allure of feudal hierarchies that attract so many writers and readers; maybe it’s the undeniable appeal of the bubonic plague or the sheer romanticism of open sewers. More likely it’s the manufactured nostalgia of the twentieth century, which looked backwards into time and discovered that princes made better heroes than plutocrats, and swords in stones were more straightforward systems of kingship than this messy democratic business.
Nineteenth century Britain, though, comes in as a close second in terms of popularity. Steam power and corsets and carriage rides and people whose dialogue has manufactured exclamations in it! Oh! What a sight! (I should note that I’m allowed to make fun of it, because I love it dearly). The popularity of this era is more complex. I like to think part of it’s the sense of swelling, inescapable, world-altering transition permeating the century that gives it such attraction, and the series of dramatic juxtapositions that creates—queens and railroads, arranged marriages and evolutionary theory, all jumbled together.
But it also seems like there are other, less savory motivations behind the veneration of the 19th century, particularly when it’s the white, male, British, upper-class experience of the 19th century that is most often recreated. Once can’t help but feel there are large contingents of readers and writers eager to escape into an imagined past without all these nasty complications about race and gender and class, where the superiority of Anglo characters and the silence of everyone else is a convenient byproduct of the era. Recent works in the genre have absolutely challenged that narrative, that let’s-never-talk-about-imperialism, don’t-worry–about-the-slave-trade, there-are-totally-only-white-dudes-here nonchalance. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books do so slowly, almost timidly, accumulating radicalism as the series progresses, so that even though her protagonist is the picture of an English gentleman, he is plagued by questions of freedom and equality. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is perhaps more direct, with Stephen Black and Lady Pole and Vinculus and Childermass scurrying unseen at the edges of the story, undercutting the singular agency of the magicians themselves.
But none of them—or none that I’ve read—are as ferocious and delightful an attack on exclusivity and racism as Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. It is this cleverness and awareness and bravery that ultimately makes the book so worth reading, and gives surprising depth to what might otherwise feel frivolous. (more…)