AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

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.

Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, Edited by Isiah Lavender III

Black and Brown Planets:
The Politics of Race in Science Fiction
Edited by Isiah Lavender III
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
ISBN:1628461233
256 pages, hardcover
Published 1st October 2014
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:

Introduction:
“Coloring Science Fiction” by Isiah Lavender III

Part One – Black Planets:
“The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness and Magic in Black Science Fiction” by Lisa Yaszek
“The Best is Yet to Come; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism” by De Witt Douglas Kilgore
“Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany” by Gerry Canavan
“Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Isiah Lavender III
“The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” by Marleen S. Barr

Part Two – Brown Planets:
“Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” by Grace L. Dillon
“Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” by Patrick B. Sharp
“Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro: Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil” by m. elizabeth Ginway
“Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” by M. Rivera
“Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” by Matthew Goodwin
“A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” by Malisa Kurtz
“Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” by Edward James (updated with additional reflections ‘Twenty-Four Years On”)

Coda:
The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction Fandom” by Robin Anne Reid

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

The Director, by David Ignatius

The Director, by David Ignatius
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393078140
386 pages, hardcover
Published: 2nd June 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

 With The Director, David Ignatius sets out to update the spy novel to the present day realities of cyber-warfare, hacking, and post-Snowdon agency secrecy practices. The resulting story, full of realism and detail, is more akin to a combination of a political and techno thriller than to a spy novel. A fictionalized version of the nonfiction that Ignatius is expert in, The Director ends up being a series of information-laden meetings between characters, heavy on conveying facts or analysis and light on action. Despite the appeal and attraction of the novel’s plot and themes, this execution makes it a relatively dry read to get through, a political/spy thriller equivalent of the hard SF genre.

As its title implies, The Director involves protagonist Graham Weber, the newly-minted director of the CIA who is committed to turning the agency around into something more modern and efficient. Mere days into his tenure, a hacker with unsettling information enters a US consulate in Hamburg and soon after turns up dead. As inter- and intra-agency wheels begin to slowly turn, Weber places a young techno-geek agent named Morris in Germany to investigate the hacker’s claims and murder. However, it becomes slowly clear to Weber that the goals of Morris and of other bureaucrats in Washington may not coincide with his own.

On one hand the novel is about idealistic and naive Director Weber and his fight to navigate the bureaucracy of Washington DC and the influence of other players, and to ultimately overcome them for the ultimate good of the nation.  It is in this way that the novel reads more like a political thriller than a spy or action novel. The term ‘thriller’ doesn’t even necessarily apply. With his appointment as Director, Weber serves as proxy to facilitate the reader’s education into theories on the origins of the CIA, its current workings, and the possible future threats it faces.

Ignatius’ experience as columnist for the Washington Post with expertise on the CIA and its workings make him ideal for writing a novel like this. However, his desire to saturate the novel with detailed verisimilitude in the place of action produces something that is hard to get through with enjoyment or captivation, particularly when having the expectation of reading fiction. The Director instead comes closer to delivering the kind of content and experience I’d rather expect from nonfiction.

Despite its title, the novel also spends a significant percentage of time on Morris and other agents of various nations or hacker organizations who meet with Weber or with Morris. Morris is such a key aspect to the novel that in some ways he seems like the actual protagonist who others, including Weber, are responding to. Only at the end, when things suddenly seem to unravel for Morris and Weber plays hidden cards does the novel turn fully back to Weber.

Ultimately, the premise and content of The Director is fascinating, and Ignatius can craft a very realistic and complex narrative around these elements. This kind of political thriller certainly has its fans, but for me the endless dry meetings between bureaucrats or other players simply made the reading experience feel boring and uneventful.

Two Stars out of Five

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
by Todd Purdum
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 0805096728
416 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” relates the convoluted steps leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with the championship and oversight of the bill’s design by the executive branch (namely the Kennedy brothers) and its subsequent evolution through passage in the House and Senate. This political development, rather ‘dry’ in itself, is of course set amid the turbulent social upheavals of the era and that event that both helped propel this ‘project’ forward and led to new difficulties in its realization, namely the Kennedy assassination and the new leadership of Southerner Johnson.

Purdum does a fine job relating the details of the Act’s development and ultimate passage, and after reading about the many failed party compromises of recent years it is interesting to read about one instance where something substantial was achieved. Unlike recent issues, however, this Act had split support and opposition from wings of both Republican and Democratic parties, and thankfully the extreme wings of each party that fought against this Act were each in the minority, unlike today.

The majority of focus in the book is on the executive branch, pervading each step leading to the final passage, and as such the people involved in the legislative branch on either side get relatively less attention. Already less familiar with these people, greater biographical detail on these players and their pasts would have been nice.

While the book does an excellent and fair job of relating the history involved, it spends very little space on any type of analysis. Largely this seems to avoid any kind of bias or opinion, as opposed to just stating the facts or reporting the recorded opinions of those involved in the process at the time. This is not a fault, but if you are looking for something beyond a simple history of passage this may not be of interest. But if you are largely unfamiliar with the details of this period of history, Purdum’s work serves as an excellent primer and education, offering glimpses not just into politics, but the social situation of the United States in the early 60’s and the racial injustices so many citizens endured and fought to overcome.

Four Stars out of Five

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670015709
368 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“Moth and Spark” is not the novel I initially expected it to be, and it took me quite awhile to figure out what star rating I could give to it. If going off my own interest and experience I would say two, perhaps even one. But that would be grossly unfair simply because it is a kind of story I don’t enjoy or get much from. If this were my thing, I would probably be inclined to rate it higher, at three or four stars.

The novel is a romance, one written for a predominantly female audience that Leonard has modeled in the spirit and tones of Jane Austen, but set within a fantasy realm. This is quite significant, because fantasy and science fiction rarely contain an infusion of material that may appeal to people who like an Austen or chick-lit type tale, particularly “high” fantasy. (Urban and supernatural fantasy abounds in female influence I would say). But the ‘epic” or ‘high’ fantasy subgenre, being so defined in Medieval (European) institutions and customs, is not terribly female character friendly.

With this, Leonard rather effectively creates a gripping romance within such confines of a vaguely Medieval European fantasy realm populated with dragons. On the plus side, she does this well, writing some beautiful prose and creating an excellent, likable protagonist. The other characters border on being a bit too simplistic in that the majority are just so good or so evil. Those that need to get along with the heroine protagonist do so without any issue at all. They simply adore her, loyally love her with nary a naysay. With the prince and King in particular as men, these ‘perfect’ characters create that strong, but suitably emotional support for the female protagonist. These perfect men are able to fight, make love, or talk deeply about their feelings at the drop of a hat as required. In this, the novel becomes almost like the exact opposite of most fantasy in this genre, where the men have become some ideal of masculinity to suit the heroine.

While this is nice in that it recognizes the defects and deficiencies of the genre, it also falls into the same trap of being equally unrealistic and off-putting. Though just as there are men out there that adore reading a book of mindless action filled with stereotypical women, so will there be women that feel at home reading a lush romance with its idealized supporting male characters. While the protagonist is brilliant, witty, and strong, she still is placed in the confines of being feminine, needing emotional support, attention, and a committed romance in a way that a male protagonist would never be written as needed. She thus remains exceedingly traditional, despite showing at least the ability of independence.

The fantastic aspects in this novel also take a strong backseat to the other elements of the story. Magic and the dragons make an appearance at the very start, but then the majority of the novel is only about romance and court intrigue, indistinguishable from a story that could take place in our own historic reality if we bent the roles of gender social conventions a bit. Fantasy doesn’t enter back into the story (nor much ‘action’ for that matter) until the final third of the novel. It therefore ends up feeling as if it were two distinct types of novel all set into one story, and I think I would have enjoyed the novel far more had there been a better integration of the two.

Three Stars out of Five

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00EMXBD9S
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of NPR Books and someone mentioned that young adult books often focus on how the actions of adults affect the lives of children, but rarely how children drive the lives of parents or other adults. That made me think about this novel and how Carleson’s work follows both directions of impact. The majority of this novel is about how the life of Laila (and the lives of her fellow young) are dictated by their family and culture. Yet, the novel also addresses the lack of freedom inherent even in the lives of the adults, whether they be parent, dictator, or (apparent) CIA officer. Furthermore the novel is that coming-of-age tale where the child begins to exert more freedom and actually turn the tables of control over so that they are now steering the course of their parent’s life.

I finished “The Tyrant’s Daughter in one day. It is an ‘easy’ read, but it is also full of great ideas, intriguing characters, and compelling plots. The story is profound and it is populated with realistic people; the text flows naturally. Nothing in this book seems superfluous, and Carleson nicely makes use of her personal experience to craft a taut thriller amid the literary underpinnings of Laila’s story.

I appreciated just how well this novel mixes entertainment with significance, conflict with insight. This is a book I would have enjoyed even when younger.

Five Stars out of Five