SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

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Sorcerer to the Crown
(Sorcerer Royal Book 1)
By Zen Cho
Ace Books – September 2015
ISBN 9780425283370 – 371 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRoc Stars


Out in paperback this month – if you missed it during its initial release – Zen Cho’s debut historical fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown generated a large amount of positive buzz prior to and immediately following its publication last fall. It has since grabbed a Locus Award nomination for Best First Novel. Sorcerer to the Crown‘s style unquestionably draws comparison to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Accurate as far as genre, setting, and general style, Sorcerer to the Crown happily lacks overwhelming girth and contains enough fun to not take itself too seriously. Also, while it took me several attempts to really get into Clarke’s novel and discover its virtues, Sorcerer to the Crown grabbed me right from its setup.
Yet, Cho’s novel also suffers from an unevenness, despite its shorter length. Following high hopes from its opening my engagement began to languish toward the middle of the novel, before picking back up again for its satisfying conclusion. Although not a perfect novel, it is entertaining and a fairly unique take on historical fantasy. An impressive debut for Malaysian writer Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown makes me warmly anticipate the next volume and any other storyline she may write.
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Sorcerer to the Crown plays wonderfully with expectations, so if you are interested in reading it already, but know nothing more about it than the above paragraphs, maybe you should stop.
Both the name of the author and the book’s cover made me expect that this would deal with courts in Asia. Awful Expectation: someone of Malaysian descent must be writing about something set in the Far East with Asian characters! This is of course absurd, which I realized as I recognized the novel’s setting of England.
Freed slave Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, the respected British society of magicians. Zacharias Wythe, however, is not much respected. Formerly page and apprentice to Sir Stephen, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias’ background and prior social standing make him a difficult figure for the establishment to accept. Complicating matters is the uncertain nature of Sir Stephen’s demise, and how the Staff of the Sorcerer Royal’s office passed to its successor.
Balancing in a precarious position, Zacharias maneuvers to thwart conspiracies to depose him, manage international political crises, and discover the reasons behind the sudden depleting of England’s magical stocks. Zacharias finds an unlikely ally to his position in Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of exceptional wit and talent who would be even more feared and ostracized by the magical establishment for the simple fact that she is female.
Though set roughly in this fantastical Regency-era England, Sorcerer to the Crown thus focuses on themes of class, race, and gender within a framework populated by creatures of intelligence beyond humans, from dragons to the inhabitants of Fairyland. The novel involves a diversity of characters – from Western to Eastern, from realistic to mythical. And Cho writes each with respect. However, she also writes them a bit too statically. Even the main characters show little growth through the novel. A sense of character evolution only comes through the revelation of secrets to the reader, explanations of why the characters are how they are. Their feelings and personality don’t go that kind of evolution and this creates problems in heroes and villains. For instance, introduction of a romantic angle at the novel’s close thereby feels flat and unsatisfying.
After first becoming immersed in the world and plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, I found the novel’s momentum begins to fail. Partly this is from the characterization mentioned above. The plot also drags a bit, with no significantly new information or surprises coming the reader’s way and challenges to the protagonists being summarily overcome without much strain. The ease of the protagonist’s victory doesn’t end, but the plot picks back up amid new discoveries and revelations, climaxing in an end that addresses the social and political themes of the novel effectively.
Ultimately, Sorcerer to the Crown is impressive, with beautiful prose by Cho and a charming, whimsical tone that addresses realistic human concerns with hope, all in a fantastic setting without the grim-dark. If only the Establishments of our Earth could so easily be progressively altered as in Sorcerer to the Crown! A delightful fantasy, but definitely a fantasy in that regard.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the AceRoc Stars group in exchange for an honest review.

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart

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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur Books – September 2015
ISBN 9781250072320 – 336 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This debut novel by Elsa Hart was a real pleasant surprise, a book with a captivating story, characters, and prose. The second of two mystery/crime novels that I recently read to feature a non-Western setting and Jesuit characters, Jade Dragon Mountain stood out as giving a strong sense of historical setting and avoiding genre clichés while keeping a traditional murder mystery structure. The sequel comes out this September, so now would be a perfect time for mystery fans to discover this notable new series.
It is the early 1700s on the border of China and Tibet, a little over half a century since the founding of the Qing dynasty. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives at a remote Chinese border town among a diverse host of citizens and travelers gathered for an extraordinary ceremony: a solar eclipse commanded by the authority of the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in an official’s home the authorities are quick to point fingers at bandits, but Li Du suspects the murder is far from random. Surrounded by strangers who hide secrets and divulge lies, Li Du struggles between the choices of departing his homeland in acceptance of his exile, or following his instincts and conscious through an enquiry that could lead to repercussions both personal and imperial.
The pacing of Hart’s writing for this historical Chinese murder mystery is spot on. Her plots, character developments, and sentences neither rush nor needlessly delay.
“He imagined then that the shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of its past and its future, existed at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud? An eerie suggestion of his own insubstantiality pulled at him. He, too, was inside the void.”
Measured, flowing prose such as this make much of Jade Dragon Mountain a story to savor, without sacrificing readability or the entertainment of the plot’s twisting surprises. Hart’s style also manages to successfully merge disparate elements – historical realism, an ‘exotic’ locale, folklore, romance, comedy, politics, social commentary, and of course mystery – into one cohesive whole.
I’ve mentioned the good character development in Hart’s debut novel, and this is certainly true for its protagonist Li Du. The other novel I recently read with surface similarities to this one had a Jesuit scientist in the role of detective, a ‘casting’ that echoes with familiarity for the crime genre. Aside from giving that Jesuit protagonist background training to make him of use for catching a killer, his existence as a Jesuit within the setting of that novel wasn’t much explored. With Jade Dragon Mountain the Occident-styled Jesuit is the victim, and the detective is a man solely immersed in Chinese culture, a man of high intellect – but not one you would immediately pick to fill the role of investigator. Hart augments that unlikelihood by making Li Du an imperial exile, a Chinese man now separated from a huge part of his culture while still being emotionally and spiritually linked with it. And that makes Li Du very fascinating. Seeing his further development through events and interactions keeps holding the reader’s interest.
The weakest aspect of Hart’s debut novel though stems from her inclusion of so many characters. It is important for upping the level of unknowns the story needs as a mystery and it allows for a diversity of character points of views and interactions across cultures. However on the more individual scale these secondary characters often lose resolution. Aside from Li Du, a story-teller named Hamza is the character who stands out in memory; the other supporting cast intermesh, and keeping track of may could take some effort in the early parts of the novel. I do also wish the female characters had greater presence, though by the final portion of the novel Li Du does interact with one more – and therefore so does the reader. Hamza is just delightful. He lends a light comic relief to the story and spins secondary tales that are just as fun to experience as the novel as a whole. I hope he appears in future stories featuring Li Du.
The White Mirror, the second book of this ‘Li Du mystery series’ comes out on 6th September 2016; I wish I hadn’t gotten behind in reviewing because I would have eagerly jumped on an early copy of it. This is a series I definitely plan to continue with and I will be purchasing a hard copy of this first novel. Hart’s novel offers a fresh setting and a variety of cultures to explore from multiple perspectives, so I don’t predict it is the kind of mystery series that would easily slip into tired formula.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher  in exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

BAD GRRLZ’ GUIDE TO REALITY, by Pat Murphy

21842809Bad Grrlz’ Guide to Reality
(Wild Angel and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell)
By Pat Murphy
Open Road Media – 15th April 2014
ISBN 1480483206  – 578 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


 I had originally planned for this one to fit into Skiffy & Fanty’s 2015 theme of female authors, but after reading it I wasn’t sure that the genre would be a suitable fit, as wonderful as this omnibus is. Composed of two complete novels, Wild Angel and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, Bad Grrlz’ Guide to Reality is two thirds of a meta writing exercise tried out by Pat Murphy, a writer whose back catalog of fiction I increasingly realize I need to seek out in its totality.
The one third missing from this omnibus is There and Back Again, the first novel of the loosely linked ‘series’, and as you can probably surmise from the title, it’s inspired from The Hobbit. And, apparently the Tolkien estate took exception to that. Following some threats it was apparently taken out of print, and in this state it remains. The purpose of the three meta volumes and some of their links (which arise mostly in the third novel) seem to be lost due to this unfortunate control, but for the most part the two novels here can be read effectively on their own (particularly Wild Angel) or in combo as presented by Open Road Media in electronic format for a great price.
There and Back Again was the fantasy component to the trilogy and you can probably tell from its titel that the second novel of the omnibus here is the science fiction component. This leaves Wild Angel, which is basically a Western adventure, or historical novel. I found Wild Angel absolutely brilliant and empowering, dominating over Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, which seems bound in the meta construction of the trilogy, interesting, but not profound.
In Wild Angel, a young girl named Sarah witnesses, while hidden unseen, her parents horrifically murdered by opportunistic bandits in the hills of California. Scalping the victims to make the attack superficially appear like a native American raid, the bandits steal the gold that Sarah’s parents were collecting while Sarah flees silently into the wilderness. Traumatized and alone amid nature, Sarah is adopted by a she-wolf who raises her among the pack. As Sarah grows and learns survival as a wolf, one of the thieves secures the gold and begins using it to establish a reputation in the budding old west town, only to hear rumors whispered of a young wolf-girl in the wilds, a potential witness to his crimes and ill-gained position.
 Partially inspired by Tarzan, more generally the novel seems influenced by timeless legends of feral children and most particularly the archetype of the wild woman (turned to from time to time for feminist analysis as by Estés). Murphy also uses Sarah and the plot to explore feminist themes and to criticize concepts of Western culture exceptionalism. The civilization of Western expansion is contrasted to the civilization of native populations and the inherent biological capabilities, instincts, and intelligence of humans when even stripped of all ‘civilized’ remnants. This permits Murphy to highlight absurd social constructs that people, especially females, are expected to conform with for no rational purpose other than to facilitate separation or oppression. Things that otherwise we take for granted until stripped down to the simplest of lives that Sarah enjoys.
Beyond the significance of its themes, Wild Angel is simply well written and a fun read. It has a good mixture of contemplative seriousness, light humor, conflict and danger, and tenderness. In contrast, Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is far more limited in scope and vision. Taking place on a cruise ship full of eccentric characters as it heads into the Bermuda Triangle, the novel mixes quantum physics with a murder mystery to tie together the other two novels in the series into its recursive plot. It is in this third novel that the Bad Grrlz’ Guide (to Physics) comes into play, comparing facts of quantum physics such as entanglement, with events in the macro. Aboard the ship reality begins to go askew as events turn surreal and the line between characters real and imagined, living and dead, begin to blur as if existing in two states simultaneously.
Events from both There and Back Again and Wild Angel are retold by characters in this book, for instance one ‘scene’ in Wild Angel where a surreal turn of events uncharacteristic for that novel’s setting and tone. In Wild Angel, this is where the universe of Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell become entangled with its plot. Characters appearing in Wild Angel (and presumably There and Back Again) reappear in this third novel, including a character named Pat Murphy. The real Pat Murphy actually writes Wild Angel as an artist and adventurer named Max Merriwell, who is also a major character in that novel, and who writes frequently under pseudonyms like Mary Maxwell. This recursive structure for the novels with its gender swapping is in the background of the other novels, not essential to the stories or themes, but relating to them. In b Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell this becomes the crux, in relation to modern physics and in relation to writing. Point to point decisions, quantum events end up defining observed reality as a wave of possibilities collapse. Or in the Bermuda Triangle, the reverse happens and perspectives, possibilities all coexist like in the mind of an author, a creator.
Personally I found Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell too gimmicky in this respect, and think that its surreal, almost farcical nature would have fit better into shorter form. Though more lighthearted, Murphy does still compose this final novel exceptionally well, keeping a consistency with references to the previous novels and vice versa, despite the walls, laws, of normal macro reality breaking down. Very different novels, though interlinked on many levels, both are worth checking out. And now I’ll have to scour second-hand shops for There and Back Again.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0385353499
306 pages, hardcover
Published: 30th September 2014
Source: Edelweiss

Although sharing with his previous novel Time’s Arrow a setting of the Holocaust, Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest takes a distinct path more grounded in realism and history that comes far closer to humanizing the Nazis and collaborators. Such a theme is unsurprisingly controversial with the Nazi machine and atrocities achieving a distinction of being often considered as closest to pure evil and inhuman horror that something non-supernatural could get. Yet, while the scope of the Holocaust presents a type of extreme, the actions underlying it were not unique to its setting, but have recurred in various forms, to various degrees throughout history. It’s important to remember that actions such as these were perpetrated by humans that forever reason consciously chose to go down a path. Typically considered monsters, they nonetheless had (mostly) rationality, emotions, love, humor.
Tackling such dark settings in historical is a tall order. Previously I’ve only read Amis’ London Fields, a superb literary treatment of the apocalyptic genre. Rather than comparing The Zone of Interest to his Time’s Arrow, I rather found myself more frequently recalling Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the Prix Goncourt-winning behemoth by Jonathan Littell. Similarly ensconced in controversy, Littell’s detailed historical novel tried balancing humanization of a Nazi protagonist with characteristics one part of an unreliable narrator and another part of a figure from Classic mythology. The hurdle that both these novels are faced with based on their subjects and points-of-view is conveying literature of meaning, keeping historical details respectful and accurate, honestly portraying ugliness with knowledge that some will be sensitive, and simply telling a good story.
Despite its immense size I felt that Littel’s novel (which I read in the French, so can’t comment on the English reliably) was mostly captivating. With Amis’ The Zone of Interest, I merely found portions here and there to really hold my interest and then mostly because of a profoundly well written sentiment or phrase. The language is great, the setting and desire to portray things from the point of view of Germans at a concentration camp is really interesting, but the plot of the story was hard to engage and even moreso an issue for something ‘literary’, the characters failed to engage.
The Zone of Interest is told from the alternating points of view of three characters. First is Paul Doll, an emotionally unstable Commandant who has little regard for, and no respect from, his wife Hannah. Second is Thomsen, a more sympathetic, but rather unambitious, Nazi who falls into a clandestine relationship with Doll’s wife. Finally the third is Szmul, a Jewish prisoner who is given a role as Nazi collaborator (basically in exchange for the chance to biologically continue existence). Szmul is responsible for implementing the Final Solution by sending his fellow Jews to the gas chambers and dealing with their remains.
This trinity of narrators is perhaps the largest reason why I found The Zone of Interest difficult to fully appreciate. Each narrator is quite distinct in personality and role. But they are also all recognizable in sharing glimpses of bittersweet humanity – even humor – in this darkest of settings, and also all manifest some deplorable moral condition. With three, it is hard to become familiar and drawn strongly to the point of view of any particular one, making the novel more like an interlaced trio of separate novels of a shared theme and loose plot. The love triangle plot line is present more for symbolism and revelation of character rather than entertainment from a story to follow.
Of the three sections I found myself most fascinated by Szmul, because of his unique position as a Jew turned to enacting these horrors upon literally himself. Seeing this and comparing it to the similar or unique decisions made by other Germans or Nazis is enlightening and I do wish the story had been told more uniquely from his point of view, rather than switching.
All of these issues are worth considering for any potential reader of The Zone of Interest, and hopefully if you are reading this it gives you a sense of whether you would give it a try. I do think it is a novel where you could start reading and realize fairly quickly whether it was for you or not. For readers new to Martin Amis I would also recommend that you not judge his work simply by this, he is a complex and gifted author whose works won’t necessarily fit into a ‘love one and love all’ or vice-versa equation.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.