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.

STORIES FOR CHIP: A TRIBUTE TO SAMUEL R. DELANY, Edited by Nisi Shawl & Bill Campbell

Just up today, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

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“Publishing since the age of twenty, Samuel R. Delany is a highly respected novelist and literary critic alike. Familiarly known as “Chip”, Delany has written science fiction and fantasy (SFF) known for pushing boundaries, for challenging the notions of speculative genres, and experimenting with approaches to literature in general. Delany’s writing both subverts conventions and transcends fiction to explore social realities, most notably the existence of the Other. Indeed, as a man who could be described with terms such as academic, homosexual, polymath, African-American, and intelligent, Delany writes from the point of view of the Other, a spectrum of under-represented perspectives within SFF.

Both Delany’s fiction and nonfiction have been hugely influential, inspiring, and appreciated, partly due to this unique vision. However, his works have also resonated so strongly because Delany’s vision is not just unique, but uniquely brilliant, honest, and perceptive. With all of its challenges and transgressions against comfortable familiarity, Delany’s work strikes universal human chords, conveying both beauty and progressive encouragement…” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

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

DISCOVERING TUBERCULOSIS, by Christian W. McMillen

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Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to Present
By Christian W. McMillen
Yale University Press – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780300190298 – 352 Pages – Hardback
Source: NetGalley


For now, just a short posting review of this, as I will be writing a more complete review soon for incorporation into a Small Things Considered piece on the topic of current tuberculosis vaccine research, addressing some of the science behind what this book addresses from a primarily historical perspective.
While the author of this is a historian and the realm of history is the primary focus of this book, it obviously contains some medical and scientific details. But it should be easily accessible for any lay reader. As a microbiologist familiar more with the bacteria than the disease and its treatment history I found a lot in this that I hadn’t been aware of, particularly in the earlier periods when Tb was frequently thought to be more easily contracted by non-white groups of people, such as the American Indians.
The book covers these early views steeped in racism and colonialism through the data that argued against such interpretations. It then covers the development of the Tb vaccine and consistent questions/uncertainties of its effectiveness. Finally the book covers the more modern – but at this point hardly new – threat of Tb infection in the face of HIV. Throughout, McMillen addresses the question of why Tb continues to be a scourge despite a century of global health efforts.
Overall McMillen provides a good historical coverage of the topic. At times I was annoyed at repetitiveness in the text, and I would have appreciated both more coverage of  future prospects for Tb vaccines, and more of a scientific discussion of the issues behind this whole history in general. I would recommend this for a general audience with interest in history, medicine, and/or global humanitarian health efforts. I will post a link to what I write for Small Things Considered after its publication.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley 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.

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.

In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.

The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.

Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.

Five Stars out of Five

No Country, by Kalyan Ray

No Country, by Kaylan Ray
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ASIN: B00GEECHIO
544 pages, Kindle Edition
Publication Date: 17th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

I quickly became enraptured by “No Country” and continued to enjoy its lush backdrops and interwoven stories of humanity until the bittersweet ends. The novel is aptly named because at its center the novel is about the human condition of being born, growing up, living, and dying, in various nation states of this Earth that are each indistinguishable in their basic challenges and joys.

Starting in Ireland, the novel follows two young friends that are forced to leave their village and country due to different social and political circumstances, ending up on opposite sides of the world. They struggle to make their journeys, whether alone, or with dear friends. Once at their ‘destination’, immigrants in a new home, they find new challenges including the basic challenge of belonging, but not belonging, as a foreigner in a new homeland. The two Irish founders live in their new homes and give birth to new lines that go through their own struggles as the waves of history carry them to their own procreation and death. As time passes, more and more of the stories of their ancestors, and their traditions, begin to vanish into an amalgam of something new, but always full of hope and desire and dreams. And sometimes ugly tragedy.

The most impressive element of Ray’s novel is its language and tone. Written in the first person throughout (obviously from various viewpoints), the voice changes from section to section based on the characters, as one would like. The early portions of rural Ireland are filled with a vocabulary and syntax that evokes the setting truly. Portions in India or the New World are suitably distinct and true themselves. Whether shifting in space, or in time, the writing shifts as well. I almost didn’t even notice this fact as I read the novel, as the story swept from place and time. But the biggest shifts at the end of the novel really made it clear as the reader is introduced to characters that are far from the heart and mind of the ancestors we’d been getting to know, reminding us that for all we may strive to make this world a greater place for our offspring, we have no control over what offspring will end up inheriting our legacies, nor of what future history can shatter all we build and value.

Rather than being depressing as I may make it all sound, the novel still manages to resonate with measures of love and hope, and beyond anything, the sense that all we humans that are on this planet are a bunch of intermingled mongrels, with shared backgrounds and ancestors. It is a reminder that though we may have our nationalities, we are each of us born of immigrants who in turn came from other immigrants, unfamiliar to our current land, stuck in their ‘ethnic ways’, destitution and dreams not unlike the newest batches of immigrants we see around us today. A beautiful novel.

Five Stars out of Five