Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

a review by Rich Horton

This was Zen Cho's first novel, published in 2015. Cho is a Malaysian writer, based in the UK, where she works as a lawyer. She caught my attention with some fine short fiction, and when this novel appeared, advertised as a Regency romance with magic, I was intrigued -- because I like Regencies, and I like magic. And the book was well-reviewed ... but I remain obstinately behind on my novel reading. However, in 2021, I have made a focused attempt to catch up on novels I've missed in the past several years, particularly novels by women; and I have been using my (new) Audible account to help. Sorcerer to the Crown, then, is the latest such novel I've listened too (the 12th, beginning at the end of last year with Piranesi.) It is read by Jenny Sterlin, very nicely. (As is traditional, I will mention the pronunciation I learned from it: "geas" is pronounced "gesh" (roughly), instead of "jee-us" as I had always read it.)

[Note -- I may misspell some names, not having the printed book to consult.]

The novel opens with Zacharias Wythe, a young black boy, demonstrating his magical abilities before a meeting of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers, sponsored by his master (and eventually adoptive father) Sir Stephen Wythe, who is Sorcerer to the Crown -- that is, the leader of English magicians. At least, of the acknowledged English magicians -- mostly gentlemen, and all men. Zacharias is a curiosity, because of his color. As for women, they are deemed too weak to perform powerful magic, though it is discreetly accepted that many women use household magics to help with cooking and cleaning, etc. But with Sir Stephen's influence, Zacharias is trained in magic, and becomes very accomplished. And then, some 20 years later, Sir Stephen dies suddenly -- and Zacharias inherits his staff, which makes him the new Sorcerer to the Crown. But his position is delicate -- many English magicians are offended by the thought that a lowborn former slave is now their leader. He is even covertly accused of having murdered Sir Stephen. And he is privately subject to a mysterious and painful malady -- in addition to the fact that the ghost of Sir Stephen continues to give him advice. And finally, this is a time of crisis for English magic -- its supply is diminishing, evidently because of some dispute with the King and Queen of Faerie. Moreover, the Sultan of Jondarbyke is demanding magical help from England, to deal with a plague of vampiresses on his island -- and England may not have the magical ability to do so.

Zacharias has few allies -- his stepmother, Lady Wythe, is one; and he has a couple of supporters in the Society, an older magician named Damerel, and a younger, rather foolish but quite pleasant man named Rollo. It is Rollo who prevails on Zacharias to give a lecture at a magical school for "gentlewitches" -- a school which aims to teach young women to suppress their magical abilities. One of the women at the school is Prunella Gentleman, who was sort of adopted by the school's headmistress after her father committed suicide. Prunella never knew her mother, though her looks make it clear that her mother hailed from India. This of course makes Prunella an outcast too, and she has been doing chores at the school, including teaching, in exchange for her keep. She is also, we quickly learn, an extremely accomplished magician -- as, indeed, are several other young women at the school, despite the efforts of the headmistress. On the day of Zacharias' visit, Prunella is set to cleaning the attic (in part of keep her out of Zacharias' way) -- and there she discovers an old valise that must have been her father's, containing (as she eventually realizes) several magical treasures, in particular seven eggs that might hatch familiars. As such they are incredibly valuable, especially as Faerie has cut off the supply of familiars to England.

Well, Zacharias' visit is something of a disaster, as some of the girls, instead of showing their docile suppression of their magical gifts, get into a fight, complete with hurled spells. Prunella gets quite unfairly blamed, and decides it is time for her to leave. And Zacharias is struck by the realization that it is really foolish for England to ignore the magical abilities of their women, and he hatches a scheme to force the Society to accept women as "magiciennes". At the same time he finds himself burdened with Prunella, who has decided that she will go to London, and that the best way to get there is to hitch a ride with Zacharias.

Things keep bubbling from there ... there are sorcerous assassination attempts against Zacharias ... there are visits from one of the witches of Jondarbyke (a delightful character!) ... one of the more powerful magicians in England mounts an attempt to dislodge Zacharias from his position, aided by his wife, who is more than she seems ... Prunella hatches some of her familiars, with the result that she is de facto the most powerful magician in England ... and, of course, Zacharias and Prunella, against their first inclinations, get closer and closer (I mean, this is a romance!)

Some of this, it seemed to me, is too much of a muchness. The ending, though in many ways satisfying, is kind of a mad jumble. Some plot strands more or less fizzle, though some are quite effectively resolved. There are a couple of out and out surprises, which both delighted me and rather tired me. There are some cliches, most notably the one in which the main character is  a) inordinately beautiful; and b) the greatest sorcerer in the land. (The other main character is of course very handsome, and one of the greatest sorcerers in the land.)

The novel deals fairly effectively with the issue of race, which obviously greatly affects the social positions of both main characters -- yet even there at times I thought things not quite convincing. All in all, I'd call it a classic exemplar of a first novel -- a writer in love with her characters and concept, having a great deal of fun (which is transmitted to the reader) but not quite in control.

I don't want to understate things -- I really enjoyed this novel, even if I felt it didn't quite work completely. But how many novels do? Sorcerer to the Crown is a lot of fun, with characters it's nice to spend time with, and that you'll readily root for. The language is pretty solid -- a decent pastiche of early 18th century prose. There is certainly room for a sequel (and, indeed, one appeared in 2019, The True Queen.) Recommended.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review: Tropic of Kansas, by Christopher Brown

Tropic of Kansas, by Christopher Brown

a review by Rich Horton

Christopher Brown's 2017 novel Tropic of Kansas was the latest novel our book group (run by Mark Tiedemann) discussed -- last Wednesday! I actually bought a copy back in 2017, and never got around to reading it. Due to the condition of my basement, I couldn't find my copy, so I went ahead and bought the Kindle version -- and then the Audible version as well. The cool thing is, that both Kindle and Audible versions allow you to jump ahead to wherever you got in the other version. Anyway, some disclaimers here -- I come to this review both a) knowing the author (a bit, not extensively), and b) having just discussed the book with him (and several fellow book club members.) Just so you know!

Before I get to the book per se, maybe I should mention what I thought about the audiobook. First -- it only taught me one new pronunciation, and actually I learned this same thing from the last audiobook I heard (Machine, by Elizabeth Bear): some people (mostly British I guess) actually pronounce "solder" as if there is an "l" in the word. Who would do that?! All Americans know it's pronounced "sodder", but I guess that's kind of a bad word to the English (by analogy with "sodding".) (Also, in Machine I learned that the English pronounce "methane" "meeeethane", which is just weird, sorry.) Tropic of Kansas is read by Josh Bloomberg and Bahni Turpin. The two readers split the book based on the two POV characters -- Bloomberg reads the chapters featuring the male character, Sig; and Turpin reads the chapters featuring the female character, Tania. (Both read the final chapter all the way through, separately -- it features both characters.) Both narrators do a good job.

The 30,000 foot view of this novel is simple: in the near future (actually an alternate near future, the Jonbar point being, apparently, the successful assassination attempt on Reagan) the US is in terrible decline, ecologically, economically, and especially politically. President Mack is a fairly open fascist who, after serving a couple of terms, staged what seems a straightforward coup against his successors. His government is fantastically corrupt, and has enemies' lists that it eagerly acts upon, and all that. The book is essentially about a grassroots revolution against him, leading to ... but I'll let the book tell you that.

On the ground, though, the book is about its two main characters, who are radically different from each other (even though they are sort of step-siblings.) We are introduced to Sig as a young teenager, essentially feral, scrambling to steal some food from a Canadian home. Years later, he is still in Canada, still essentially feral, but is being deported to the US. Tania, by contrast, is a lawyer in Washington, D. C., working for the government, in a division that investigates corruption. This isn't what she might have expected growing up poor in Minneapolis, and her mother considers her to be something of a sellout, but she, and her very privileged white friend Odile, seem to feel that they are doing what they can to ameliorate a nasty political situation. But one day the two of them visit the White House, following what has been called a suicide bombing attempt by the former Vice President, Maxine Price, who (they say) tried to blow up the President in revenge for his role in removing her and the previous President from office. Tania sees the President -- who escaped the blast, only losing an arm -- and can't resist yelling at him. And quickly she and Odile are arrested.

Both of them have just enough pull not to be charged, but Tania's mother is also in prison, and Tania is pressured into a deal. In exchange for her mother's release, she must take on a difficult assignment in the "Tropic of Kansas" -- the name for the ecologically and economically blasted Midwest -- essentially, the Mississippi River valley (its whole length) and points West. Her division has been tracked with rooting out a dangerous criminal who has escaped from detention in northern Minnesota. This is, of course, Sig. And (in something of an implausible coincidence), she knows Sig. For he used to live with her family in his preteen years, when his mother -- a radical -- wasn't able to care for him. And Tania, a few years older than him, was his primary babysitter. We get some flashbacks, both their back stories, and especially the story of Sig's mother's death, and how Sig reacted (a policeman ended up dead, and Sig had to run to Canada.)

So that sets up the main action. And what follows is, in a series of alternating chapters, the story of Sig making his way from Northern Minnesota south, through Iowa, St. Louis, and Texas, and eventually to New Orleans, the center of the resistance. Meanwhile, in the other chapters, we follow Tania, as she is always a step or two behind Sig, but is slowly learning about the resistance, and especially their strange, secret, illegal computer network. Inevitably, the more Tania learns, the more she is convinced to change sides; and as for Sig, his passage is more a series of heroic attempts at small (or sometimes larger) acts of violence aimed at thwarting the government and its ruling cabal of corporations, and also setting free some of his friends. 

The structure of the novel is striking -- very short chapters, alternating viewpoints. It gives the book tremendous propulsive momentum. Much of Tania's (more interior, both figuratively and literally) chapters are devoted to understanding this society, and learning about the alternate political structure she eventually hopes to promote. Sig's chapters are exterior -- partly because he is all surface. We learn little about his inner feelings -- one noticeable feature is that he has a few brief relationships with women, and it never seems something he wants, though presumably he's happy enough with them. They just sort of happen. And they're not the point. The point, really, of the Sig sections is action, and they are very exciting, turning on a set of increasingly extravagant, and generally very violent, confrontations. Sig levels up again and again, becoming a sort of superhero, at the same time generally ending up seriously injured, captured, imprisoned only to escape, and at best only about 80% successful in each effort.

The resolution came for me as a bit of a mixed bag. There's a certain degree of anti-climax, and of rushedness, to the conclusion. But at the same time, it's pretty honest in its mixed nature. The book is willing to admit that revolution comes with terrible costs, to both sides; and also that while it may achieve some of its goals, it rarely achieves them all; and may also have unexpected and negative consequences. 

All this said, I really liked the book. It's terrifically exciting, Very fast moving. Politically fascinating (even if you don't agree at all times -- indeed, you almost never should agree wholly in a case like this, and as I mentioned, this book is willing, at least to a degree, to interrogate its politics, to admit skepticism.) The main characters are both very well depicted (despite the eventual near-superhero qualities of Sig), and both, despite severe faults, end up being people we really root for. 

And, for a fillip -- here's what Chris Brown said about the origin of this novel. He wrote a story for a festschrift about Robert Howard -- stories riffing on Howard's themes and characters. Brown's story essentially reimagined Conan as a soldier in the Iraq War. ("The Bunker of the Tikriti", as by Chris Nakashima-Brown, in Cross Plains Universe.) As he later considered making this story a novel, it obviously required massive change -- complete reimagining -- but it is truly interesting, and illuminating, to see Sig as modern day vision of what a Conan character might really be.