Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — book review

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“A person’s fortune always changes in the telling of it.”

Turns out that reading The Luminaries was a phenomenal waste of my time. Eleanor Catton writes well, and the concept behind her novel had the potential of being interesting, but on the whole The Luminaries seems to be little more than a dull rehash of Wilkie Collins’ Sensation novels. What is worse is tat Catton treats her characters as if they were disposable accessories, seeming far more focused on weaving into her storyline vague allusion to astrological signs rather than of creating memorable characters or an intriguing mystery.
At the end of the day a polished prose—which seems to merely mimic the language of nineteenth century fiction—doesn’t make up for the fact that over the course of nearly 900 pages Catton tells a story that isn’t worth reading.

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The novel’s astrology-based structure—which is made apparent from the character chart and the various charts which are interspersed throughout this tome of a book—amounts to little more than a clever gimmick. The all-knowing narrator tries to inject the many events recounted by the narrative with some sort of mystical meaning which came across as being both contrived and banal.

The story’s opening chapters are promising enough.On a stormy January night in 1866 Walter Moody, one of the book’s central figures, takes shelter in the Crown Hotel (Hokitika, New Zealand) and, unbeknownst to him, interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men. Over the course of the next 400 pages or so each man gives his account (directly and not) regarding the suspicious death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, the possible suicide of Anna Wetherell (a prostitute often referred by 90% of the characters as ‘the whore’), and Francis Carver, a captain of ill-repute. Each has played a different role in these strange events, and naturally they all have an incomplete picture of these odd occurrences and coincidences. With the help of Moody they try to put the various pieces of this puzzle together. So far…so good, right?
Sadly, I soon realised that these characters were of secondary importance to the very structure of the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if these characters weren’t so easily forgotten and swept aside by the narrative which around at the 70% mark ends up focusing on two of the most weakly drawn characters of the entire novel. One was largely MIA, the other one possessed a personality that was defined by her profession…and all of a sudden I’m 1) supposed to care for these two, 2) take them seriously. S-u-r-e thing.
The twelve men were stereotypes but they had the potential of being interesting. Yet the narrative doesn’t really do anything with them (I was particularly frustrated by Ah Sook’s character arc).710V6t8+AGL.jpg
In spite of the emphasis that our omniscient narrator puts on faith and the converging paths of these various characters, it all seemed so random and inconsequential.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages and there is no pay off.
The setting of the story lacks ambience. The narrative does ‘tells’ a lot and ‘shows’ very little. While Eleanor Catton’s writing does accurately convey the historical period in which her story is set, it also struck me as cold.
Her prose lacks Wilkie Collins’ humour. Her story and structure seem far too dull and contrived to be part of the Sensation genre. There may be certain elements (stolen identities, secret marriages, forged documents, an evil woman) but there is no passion, no spark. The characters are unfunny stereotypes that have no real impact on the narrative. If the story doesn’t care for its characters, why should I?
There are so many descriptions about their behaviours and values that don’t really amount to anything. Their personalities are almost interchangeable. At times these descriptions of their beliefs and conducts seemed to be little more than results of Catton’s logorrhoea. They sounded clever but they didn’t really go towards making that character (and his motivations) more vivid or realistic.
There is a lot of repetition. Some was intentional (given that these men are discussing the same events time and again) a lot was empty prattle. Much of the dialogue consisted in characters asking the same question twice or three times, giving the same reply twice or three times, or not understanding each other (and having to repeated themselves twice or thee times).
While I can’t deny that Catton can write very eloquently indeed, I was only able to enjoy the first 200 pages or so of her novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) : Book Review

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The True Queen
by Zen Cho
★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

Now, this is what I call a great companion novel.

“Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability.”

It’s not easy to describe this series. A mad fantasy romp? A fantasy of manners? A pastiche of 19th-century literature?
I strongly recommend reading Sorcerer to the Crown before embarking on this one. I actually think I enjoyed this novel more because I started this knowing more about Zen Cho’s style and magical world.

The story focuses on Muna and her sister, Sakti, both of whom have lost their memory. Waking up after a storm they remember only their names and that they are sisters. The two travel from the island of Janda Baik (where Sakti is trained by the powerful witch Mak Genggang) to England. Sakti however is spirited away during their shortcut through the unseen realm (aka fairyland), and Muna arrives alone to England.
Here we are reunited with familiar faces such as the Sorceress Royal (Prunella!), her husband, Zacharias Whyte, and Henrietta Stapleton (a schoolmate of Prunella).
The novel follows different characters, and Cho easily weaves together their different storylines. Muna remains the central figure of the story and I was utterly absorbed by her determination to rescue her sister.
Along the way, she will have to lie (something she doesn’t like to do), accustom herself to a society that is not friendly towards women practising magic or foreigners (more than a few ‘respectable’ members of the British society throw racist jabs her way), trick a number of magical creatures, and forge an unexpected friendship (some which might blossom into something more).

Cho’s pays incredible attention to etiquette and modes of behaviour. She includes a lot of archaic English words (mumchance might be a new favourite) and really brings to life the old British empire without romanticising it. Yes, her world is enchanting but the society she focuses on has very conservative social mores (our protagonists are judged on the basis of their ethnicity, race, sex, and class). Yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom! Quite the opposite in fact. Humour and wit underline this narrative and I was smiling throughout.

Do you know that food must only speak when it is spoken to?

Cho combines different mythologies and folklores creating a unique compendium of magical beings and traditions: there are fairies, dragons, lamias, vampiresses, as well as Malaysian spirits and supernatural beings such as weretigers, bunians, and polongs. The unseen realm is richly imagined and I loved the parts set in it (those scenes gave me strong Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland vibes).

The more the polong said, the less reassured Muna felt. “But are not spirits famously changeable?”
“I will have you know that is an offensive generalisation,” said the polong. “No one could accuse me of inconstancy.

The way in which magic works in Cho’s world is just as interesting as I remembered (more cloud-riding, yay!).
The characters were another delightful aspect of this story. Regardless of their standing (wherever they were old fogeys or angry dragons) they were portrayed in an almost endearing way. Muna was probably my favourite character. I loved the way she looked up to Mak Genggang, her bond with her sister who is in many ways a difficult person to love, and her unwavering sense of duty and her empathy.

This is escapist fiction at its best. It provided me with a brilliant story, an interesting mystery, magic, funny mishaps, balls, a dash of romance, and non-stop entertainment.

“When I have mislaid my things, murder is not my first course of action,” said Prunella. “What I do is look for them—and quite often I find them.”

One of my favourite scenes features a depressed dragon:

“No one ever saw a longer face on a dragon.
He had never been overly fond of the usual draconic pursuits and in the circumstances, they lost all their savour.
At most he might dutifully pick off a unicorn that had wandered away from its herd, but he had not the heart to finish devouring the carcass before his appetite failed him. ”

Another brilliant scene was when Muna told off a bunch of paintings:

“I am a guest in your country, I am entitled to your hospitality, and instead, you hoot like monkeys. You dishonour your white hair by your conduct. Men so old should know better!”

There were so many funny one-liners and exchanges. Muna’s quest gives the narrative a fast pace so that we jump from one adventure/mishap to the next. I sincerely hope that Cho will write more books set in this world and if you are a fan of authors such as Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones you should definitely give Cho’s books a try.