book review

Sorcerer to the Crown: A Subversive Regency Romp

sorcerer to the crownIn 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.[1]

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…)

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The Angel of Losses

angel of lossesA new review of Stephanie Feldman’s Crawford-prize-winning theological fantasy, The Angel of Losses, over at Strange Horizons!

Once (in New York City) upon a time (about now), there were two sisters named Marjorie and Holly. Their unexceptional middle-class childhoods were shadowed only by their grandfather’s eerie, haunting bedtime stories—about the White Rebbe, about ghostly young boys haunting Old World villages, about the Sabbath Light and the Angel of Losses.

Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel The Angel of Losses is like that: A delicate mix of mysticism and modernity, folktale and history. It’s a book made of opposites. Half the narrative is a present-day family drama about a woman renegotiating her relationships with her sister and her grandfather—light, mundane, modern. But the other half is a dark, mystical examination of sacrifice, and the cost of love. It’s this grimmer, eerier side that makes the book so worth reading…….More over at Strange Horizons!

Administrating Imaginary Empires: Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor

Ancillary_Sword_Orbit_coverThis is not a ploy to review two books at once because I’m like a thousand books in review-debt. I swear.[1]

Instead, this is what happens when you read a super-sci-fi-y story about spaceships, aliens, and AI, then switch to a classically fantasy story with goblins and elves, and find out they’re actually fascinatingly similar books with a lot to say about power, empire, and administration.

Both of them delighted me. Both of them disappointed me. Both of them are worth reading. (more…)

A Tale for the Time Being

tale for the time being 1Continuing my mission to read more recent “literary” fiction—that suspiciously nebulous genre, united only by the absence of spaceships and wizards, as far as I can tell—I recently read Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize-nominated A Tale for the Time Being. My feelings for this book are split very precisely down the middle. You know that creepy character in A Nightmare Before Christmas who spins his face from happy to sad? Yeah. That’s what reading this book was like. (more…)

Dreamer’s Pool: The Perilous Business of Being Female in Fantasy

dreamers poolThose who have read Marillier before know the drill: She produces exceptionally readable and endearing fantasy set in the medieval and ancient British Isles, revolving around women, myths, and magic. I adored Daughter of the Forest for its loving recreation of my absolute favorite fairy tale as a kid (the Six Swans).[1] The other Sevenwaters books went by in a blur of kings and curses because I was on vacation and had to get through the entire series before my Mom left with her duffle bag of paperbacks.

Dreamer’s Pool is still about women, magic, and ancient Ireland. So if you liked Sevenwaters, there’s no need to fear that Marillier is now writing about werewolf romances in Prague or artificially intelligent zucchini or something. But in some key ways Dreamer’s Pool is a departure from her previous works, focusing on the lowest rungs of society rather than the ruling family and looking at much wider and more real social ills. Not that help-my-brothers-are-swans isn’t a compelling problem, it’s just not, you know, something that haunts my nightmares. (more…)