Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

I’m back! And I’ve been reading a lot. Who knows what the coming weeks will bring, because life is crazy (I start an MFA in less that 2 weeks? Is that real life?), but if everything goes as planned, I should have another review or two for y’all before the end of the month.

For my first review in a great long while, I’ve got Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. I was approved to review Cho’s debut novel by Netgalley, it is released September 1st. You can find information about preorder here.

Set in Regency London, Sorcerer to the Crown tells the story of Zacharias Wythe, the first Black leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, called the Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias was a slave bought  by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic to prove that Black men and men of other races can use English magic with equal proficiency to the members of the traditionally white-only, male-only Society.

Despite Sir Stephen’s blessing and his considerable magical prowess, Zacharias faces much resistance because of his race, which makes his job even harder during uncertain times while Britain slowly consumes its dwindling reservoir of magic.

I was astounded early on with Cho’s remarkable way of capturing the rhythm and movement of emotional conversation. This kind of dialogue was consistent throughout the novel and remains in my eyes one of the strongest aspects of the book. On the other side of the prose, Cho skilfully rendered her narrator’s scope to convey the time period while maintaining an easily readable and relatable pace and tone. There were very few instances where I felt the register she chose seemed awkward (even those instances didn’t bother me enough to write them down).

My greatest beef with Cho and her narrator is the way she used an omniscient perspective to infuse her modern views into the prose. In the story, women are not permitted magical education and some folks go so far as to purge magical girls of their abilities forcibly. The narrator takes on this issue in a decidedly mocking tone, not representing any of the characters’ sensibilities, which took me out of the story. We already knew that girls rocked at magic anyway because of all the frightened stories men told of a woman who came to harness “too much magic.”

It was obvious from the beginning that women were competent in magic, which raised a question: How the hell did women become excluded from magic-using communities in the first place? Remove all instances of “magic” from the question and I think we see what Cho was driving at, although a bit bluntly.

And since I was already suspecting powerful women magicians were about to become a big issue in the story, I was slightly disappointed with the introduction of who I immediately knew would become a second protagonist, Prunella. Her rise to the forefront of the story was anything but subtle.

I can forgive that, though, because Cho’s unsubtlety in this area was enough to distract me from realizing that PRUNELLA IS FUCKING HILARIOUS until I was already on the floor rolling around in tears. Prunella quickly became the lifeblood of this story with her quick wit, natural aptitude for magic, and unrelenting personality. Very few characters in fiction can pull off being as unabashedly themselves as Prunella does. She is a fantastic woman who embodies so many characteristics we too often don’t get to see in women. She is: naturally really good at magic, defiant, driven, determined, unafraid, and she has the unhesitating capacity to do exactly what she needs to do, even when that means endangering those close to her. What I love most about this last aspect is that she makes hard decisions to save Zacharias and others and (although she may be in love with him) she makes the decisions not from a place of romantic love, but from a place of duty and appreciation.

When I heard this book was about Regency London, I expected to read just another fantasy about white wizards on adventures. I found instead that Cho has (unsurprisingly given her other work) gifted us with a careful and precise treatment of race and power in politics and society. This is most obviously manifested in Zacharias at the start of the novel. When the issue of women in magic is brought up, Zacharias exhibits the same prejudices as the other magicians, shying away from the idea. I felt disappointed at this. Zacharias should recognize this as oppression, shouldn’t he? But I realized Cho was showing us the reality of a marginalized protagonist being so swept up in surviving society that he propagates and never questions the subjugation of women in magic. It would have been easy to make Zacharias an infallible outsider who saw through the veil of tradition and supremacy, but he isn’t, he is quite at fault and we benefit from it as a reader, getting to watch him grow throughout the novel.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a bright book, even in its heavier moments, and though I would’ve loved to have been surprised (and admittedly torn apart) by a dark turn of events, that’s not the book this is and I won’t complain. This is a feel good book to the end. That has been accomplished flawlessly.

As the story wraps up, you can feel all the lines of inquiry raised throughout the novel being carefully knotted and tied. If you had any question in the book, it probably gets answered. This can be seen as positive, but to me the closing of the novel felt too deliberate. However, I’m hopeful this is something Cho will learn to overcome as her career progresses.

Overall, this is not a perfect novel but it is a damn good debut. I look forward to reading what Zen Cho has for us in the future.

Stay tuned on this page in the coming weeks. I’ve got reviews of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu coming soon.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Sorry this one took so long to get up! My time in Spain is winding down, meaning I’ve had less time to read and less time to write as I give life here one last burst of energy. I finished this novel about a month ago, maybe more, so it’s not all fresh. Excuse any vagaries from memory failure.

Earlier this year when I asked my friends where I should start if I wanted to start reading Gaiman, American Gods was the immediate choice for all of them. From what I could gather, it was a good introduction to the style and ideas of Neil Gaiman. They were all correct.

What I found in this novel was a well-paced story of accessible (but still fantastic) fantasy that was deeply researched, interesting, funny, and full of delightful prose.

American Gods is an important read for writers, especially, because of a skillful balance that Gaiman has discovered. He seems to have stumbled upon the exact correct proportions of funny, shocking, sad, rewarding, and compelling with this book. This is one of very few books I’ve read that can consistently use dream to such great effect, developing characters and driving forward the plot. I’m particularly impressed with how appropriately he handled a few specific moments, including two big character deaths.


The death of Wednesday: When one of our central characters, Wednesday was killed by the new gods, I had to set the book down for a moment. I was suspicious. His death was abrupt, unceremonious, and felt rather cheap. I didn’t feel sad or upset, so much as disappointed. I invested a lot into him, trying to figure out his character and guess his next move and the way he died didn’t satisfy me. If it had been left at that, I would not have felt happy with this death. Then I worried, because there was a tugging notion in the prose and the procedure that made me believe Wednesday would come back. That’s disconcerting, because tricking a reader and bringing a character back/faking a death is often cheap and unsatisfying. I was worried Gaiman wouldn’t pull it off. IMO, he did it just right. The two-man grift, the partially, temporarily successful attempt at resurrection offered enough closure, fully developed Wednesday as a character, and ultimately left me content with his demise.

The death of Shadow: I felt similarly about this death. It just didn’t feel like Shadow would stay dead, and that was scary, especially because he was human and there were no special tricks up his sleeve that I could conceive of. I was immensely satisfied with Shadow’s spiritual journey through the underworld and with his decision to fade into nothingness. Because we reached that stage of acceptance with Shadow, it made his resurrection enjoyable because we were able to watch his negative reaction to being torn from nothingness and thrown back into life.

These are certainly two of the most interesting deaths/resurrections I’ve read in a long time. And feeling my reactions to them as they happened taught me a great deal about what a reader wants and needs from character death.

Probably the greatest thing I appreciated about this novel, though, is the immense amount of detail Gaiman offered us about the environments, the minutiae, and the belief systems he presented us with. I have an enormous bag of respect waiting for Gaiman should he ever choose to claim it, because of how impressed I was with the research that went into this book.

With that said, though, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the scope of the religions and cultures he represented. Of course, it would’ve been impossible for him to meaningfully represent every culture of the world in a 600-page novel, but most of the big characters from mythology were the easy choices, coming from popular European myth. It would’ve been nice to see a few more less popular, less anglo-centric gods be given fleshed out stories or characters. There was almost nothing from South America. Does that count as part of the barren America?

Which brings me to the subject of Native American representation. Gaiman justifies his plot-integral proposition that gods don’t thrive well in the Americas by stating that native religions were truly more about land-worship and idols than the creation of gods. I know little about most native religions, but 1) that’s a broad statement and 2) that just doesn’t seem fair. Can we truly say that or is this a case of misrepresentation and the molding of a culture to the author’s needs? I’m inclined to say the latter.

Despite my qualms with representation in this book, I did love it. I wouldn’t call it a master piece, but I would call it a brilliant piece of art that we can look to for inspiration.

Now, I’ve got a question about one part of the book that escaped me. Maybe someone can offer an opinion.

Toward the end, when Shadow is underneath the ice, passing out, he sees a vision of Whiskey Jack, the buffalo god, and the thunderbird god. They seem to be beckoning him, but as Hinzelmann grabs Shadow’s hand and rescues him, the gods turn away and seem to abandon him. Am I interpreting that right? If so, what is their reason for leaving him behind? Has he betrayed them by surviving or has he been tainted because the kobold saved his life? What’s going on here?!? It’s the one part of the book I couldn’t grasp and it’s been eating at me for weeks.

Please, someone, help me.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Publication Day! and Other News

Hey readers, I’ve got a quick, exciting update for you. Most recent news first.

  1. I’m insanely happy to announce that my short story “Flat Nose, Empty Head” is now live at the fantastic Hypertext Magazine. Please please please pop over to their site and give it a read. This is my first publication and I couldn’t be more excited.
  2. If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you know I was struggling to decide my future next year. I’ve finally made a choice. If you want to find me after August of 2015, I’ll be at Iowa State University, writing and writing and writing. I look forward to seeing you there.
  3. A new review will be on the way soon. What book is it? One mentioned in a previous post: American Gods

That’s all for now. Until my next review!

Publication Day! and Other News

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Science Fiction at Its Forte

These days, science fiction is more popular than ever and it’s easy to find good science fiction. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the SF we’re reading now utilizes fantastical elements to create a futuristic or science fictional world. The science is brushed over for the more interesting, unusual aspects of the world. AND I THINK THAT’S GREAT. So much of the SF written this way is fantastic. And yes, hard sci fi does exist, but no one has been doing it in quite the same way as the old masters did it, as Wells, Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke did it. A large reason for this is likely that those writers were in some capacity scientists as well as writers, whereas nowadays, many of us are writers first and scientists only as a hobby or interest. I thought the days of beautiful, creative science fiction created by writer-scientists was over. Then I found Cixin Liu and The Three-Body Problem (thanks to translator Ken Liu and publisher Tor Books for this great discovery) and I realized how wrong and myopic I had been.

The Three-Body Problem has only just been translated into English from the original Chinese in the last year. I pulled the trigger and bought this book after seeing Cixin Liu called the “Chinese answer to Arthur C. Clarke.” I had to verify this ludicrous claim. I verified it.

Liu grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution and his reading inspirations were the American SF greats, as he tells in the book’s afterword. Before becoming a writer, he was an engineer. Mixing simple prose (with an eye for the beautiful) and the meticulousness of a career scientist, Liu hasn’t imitated or recreated the old greats, he has become one of them. In fact, the way Ken Liu has portrayed the prose is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke, as other have stated. Beyond that, the vibrant, original plot is brimming with wonder, science, and philosophy, just like we used to see in the days of Clarke. The novel also presents a solid cast of characters, mostly scientists from different backgrounds. My favorite, though, is the police officer and detective Shi Qiang. Da Shi, as he is also known, is a rough-around-the-edges cop who isn’t afraid to open up the rules in higher dimensions and manipulate them. This is the kind of quirky, aloof, and ultimately lovable character I’ve come to expect from Haruki Murakami’s works, but he fits right in in this world of intrigue, subterfuge, and betrayal.

Ken Liu has done a fantastic job with this translation, sparingly adding footnotes for a number of cultural references that most English readers wouldn’t have otherwise understood and offering small additional explanations within the prose for smaller integral details. I’m sad he isn’t translating the second novel in the trilogy, but I’ll reserve any judgement until the book is actually released.

No SF bookshelf is complete without a copy of The Three-Body Problem. Who am I to proclaim that? Nobody, actually, but trust me. It’s the truth.

Has anyone read this novel yet? If so, leave me a comment about your opinion of the future of Chinese science fiction in English-speaking readerships. Between this and Clarkesworld’s recent translations, I think we’re about to see an influx of great literature.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Science Fiction at Its Forte

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler: Verily

I’m a huge fan of Lemony Snicket but until We Are Pirates, I had never read a book by the man behind the man, Daniel Handler. If you’ve read A Series of Unfortunate Events, then you’re familiar with Handler’s tongue-in-cheek style and ethereal interpretation of what the fourth wall is. As a youth, those characteristics pulled me ever deeper into his writing.

They’re all present in this novel, though in new iterations. Handler’s narrator is a sneaky investigator attending an open house at the main characters’ (the Needle family) who finds himself enjoying the pants-up, lid-down peace of Phil Needle’s personal toilet where he recounts (imagines?) the events of the last few months. Handler is true to his wry, biting sense of humor and satire throughout the novel, and it is indeed “strange,” as Neil Gaiman comments in his blurb. Handler even employs his familiar technique of phrase repetition to tie his themes together, one example being multiple uses of “during this era of American history.”

All this was present and yet, this novel fell short. It kept my attention while I was reading, but once I set the book down, I didn’t think about it again until I picked it up again.

Amidst the general okayness of We Are Pirates, Handler did manage to touch on a few interesting points. He talks a lot about the state of American society, neither condemning nor praising it, and that, I feel, is what the book is really about. Within that theme he discusses adolescence, individuality, ageism, aging, Alzheimer’s, generation gaps, and much more. What drew my attention most, though, was his (scant but sharp) look at racism. From describing (quite accurately) the way white people try to convince themselves they are prejudiceless, to pointing out that most of the characters are white, Handler’s comments are very conscious and quite hard to interpret. “Just about everyone one else, by the way, in this book is white,” he says, the non-white character being a man from Haiti whose boss thinks he’s Jamaican. So Daniel Handler calls out novelists writing only white characters, but it’s unclear whether he’s satirizing the situation or merely admitting to its perpetuation. Either way, his comments are worth noting after the joke he made following Jacqueline Woodson’s speech at the 2014 National Book Awards.

did laugh, I did like the characters. We Are Pirates is absurd, honest, and brutal–all the things it promised to be. But there wasn’t the magic that makes a good novel a great novel. Maybe I misread this one, but for me it wasn’t the novel that Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Russel T. Davies promised it would be.

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler: Verily

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory

Welcome to my first post of Book Thoughts! Be prepared for lots of amateur criticism. I’m writing this blog to improve and expand the way I read books and I’m happy to start discussions and field constructive criticisms! Leave me a message in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer. Now, on to Station Eleven! (Oh yes, there will be spoilers.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) is an intricately woven tale of love and memory within a rapidly changing society. Split into nine parts and fifty-five chapters, the novel cycles through a whirlwind of third-person perspectives naturally and adroitly developing a story never quite in present or past about a traveling symphony and Shakespeare troupe traversing the Midwest in the later of twenty years after a global pandemic caused by the “Georgia flu” decimates the world population. A nearly equal amount of time is spent in the twenty or so years leading up to the flu and especially the days of the first worldwide outbreaks. Taken together, these temporal shifts illustrate how personal relationships and social memory remain largely unchanged even as society is broken down macroscopically.

If the premise seems strange to you, I urge you to suppress that feeling and read on. After reading the novel, I’m convinced that joining a traveling acting group is the most natural path to take after a devastating virus kills our conception of society. You’ll know where to find me once civilization has collapsed.

Mandel employs not only time shifts and flashbacks to construct the narrative but also shifts in tense. Scenes set in the post-fall time vary between a present and a past narration. The same is true for scenes in the pre-fall. This appears to be a storytelling technique consciously utilized to force the reader into jumping between a feeling of immediacy or a feeling of retrospection. The technique is effective and, in the end, logical. Logical because it seems that the character Clark holds all the pieces together. He is the glue between all the perspectives because he knew all of the characters who the story follows. In that case, it may be that the whole story is created or narrated by Clark and passed on, becoming a part of the oral tradition of the post-collapse, told for generations in his Museum of Civilization. If we take this to be true, a narrative style more fluid, imperfect, and talky makes sense.

In a sense, this book is Clark’s greatest contribution to his museum.

Fundamentally, this book is an exploration of how things change and how things stay the same. At its core, Station Eleven is a depiction of what Mandel sees as the unchanging, foundational aspects of human society and interaction, our relationships. This novel is a delightful, powerful, and accessible look at what makes us human and how we preserve and cultivate those relationships even in the most dire of circumstances. Station Eleven earned every accolade it garnered in 2014. I look forward to reading more of Mandel’s work in the future.

Discussion question: Now that Station Eleven has been optioned and purchased (!!!), who is your ideal director for the film? (Shout out to Pints and Cupcakes for, among a million other things, raising this question to me a few days ago.)

Coming soon:

Rat Queens

Kafka on the Shore

One Hundred Years of Solitude (read in Spanish)

And many others!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory