fantasy

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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This Just In: Uprooted Is Really Good

uprootedThis review will tell you what any Google search would say: Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is real good, and you should read it now. The rest of this post will just be that sentence repeated with different emphases (Uprooted is good, and you should read it now) and a few rambling ideas on what makes it so good. You’ve been warned. (more…)

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…)

Avoiding Middle-Book-itis: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

shattered pillarsElizabeth Bear’s entire Eternal Sky trilogy is now sitting in a neat row on my bookshelf. I adored the first book and consumed the second one so quickly it went by in a blur of semi-divine horses and cool but unpronounceable names. Before I read Steles of the Sky (released on April 10th), it’s worth pausing to reconsider the middle book in what might be one of my favorite fantasy series in recent years.

In Shattered PillarsTemur and his band of loyal and enigmatic followers continue their quest. But the quest is stranger and less certain than it used to be. Temur wants to save Edene, his horse-riding lady-love, but also reclaim his grandfather’s throne and oust his rival Qori Buqa. In a vast and fractured political landscape dominated by independent city-states, this turns out to be rather difficult. Much of Team Temur’s time is spend navigating the labyrinthine politics of foreign cultures in an attempt to amass a power base. And getting periodically attacked by assassins. (more…)

“Silently and Very Fast,” Or, Fairy Tales for the Sentient Robot

silently-and-very-fastI read the first few chapters of this novella as an act of faith, because Valente has earned my trust as a reader, and because Silently and Very Fast has an award and nomination list long enough to be its own short story (it won the Locus Award for Best Novella, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards). So I waded through dense cyber-fairytale imagery on the assumption that it would resolve itself into a story. It did. A very, very good one. (more…)