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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Tithe by Holly Black

“It was one thing to believe in faeries; it was totally another thing if you weren’t allowed to even have a choice about it. If they could just walk into your normal life, then they were a part of normal life, and she could no longer separate the unreal world from the real one.”

Holly Black writes the best modern faeries tales.
First published in 2002 Tithe is Holly Black’s debut novel. While Black’s storytelling has certainly come a long way since her Modern Faerie Tales days, I have a soft spot for this series. I first read Tithe back in 2007 when I was 11 and it completely blew my mind. While I now recognize that its plot, language, and secondary characters could have been more complex, I still find that it makes for an engrossing read. Black has definitely honed her writing skills since writing this, and if we compare Tithe to her Folk of the Air trilogy, well it does seem a bit less ‘sophisticated’…but maybe that’s the reason why I like it so much. It has this late 90s/early 2000s grunge aesthetic that works really well with the faerie world Black has created. Black’s faeries are beautiful, cunning, and cruel, not to be messed with, and her lead character, Kaye, is delightfully gritty.

The narrative is fairly fast-paced. After spending the last years on the road, sixteen-year-old Kaye and her mum, who is in a punk-rock band, return to her grandmother’s home in New Jersey. Here Kaye reconnects with her childhood BFF Janet and, not fully aware of what she’s doing, ends up casting a spell on her boyfriend. Freaked out by her own actions Kaye runs off and finds herself coming face-to-face with Roiben, a wounded faerie knight.
Kaye becomes embroiled in the ongoing feud between the Seelie and the Unseelie court. Turns out that her childhood friends, Lutie-Loo, Spike, and Gristle, are not ‘imaginary friends’ after all and they are now in need of her help.
In addition to Kaye, we also follow Corny, Janet’s older brother, who is gay and a bit of an outsider. He and Kaye team up but soon learn first-hand how dangerous and brutal the faerie world can be.

“Whatever has been done to me, whatever I have done… as surely as blood soaks my hands, and it does, the stain of it touches even the hems of the Queen of Elfland.”

I had a lot of fun re-reading this. The narrative goes for this ‘edgy’ tone that for some bizarre reason I found to be strangely endearing. I liked the friendship between Kaye and Corny, and I also appreciated how flawed Black’s characters are (there is a tendency in ya to make female leads into shy/book-loving/not-like-other-girls type of characters). While the romance does have a vague hint of insta-love, Kaye and Roiben certainly have chemistry and their interactions are charged with ambivalence.
While Black’s prose here isn’t quite as gorgeous or refined as the one from her later works—she uses the dreaded “She let go a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding” phrase—Tithe still holds up. We have some truly lush and tantalising descriptions of the faeries and their revels, as well as some bewitching scenes that really showcase Black’s knowledge of faerie tales. The riddles populating this narrative are ingenious, the court dynamics and shenanigans are intriguing, and Kaye’s arc was certainly compelling.
If you are a fan of Black’s newest series and you are in the mood for something a quick urban fantasy read, well, you may want to give Tithe a shot.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

“I am nothing,” Cardan said, “if not dramatic.”

Holly Black’s prose is as tantalising as ever.
The tales collected in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories focus on Cardan. We learn more of his childhood and get to see certain scenes and events from The Cruel Prince through his perspective.
Stories are at the heart of this volume as Cardan has various encounters with the troll Aslog who presents him with different spins on the same tale (in which a boy with a sharp tongue is cursed with a heart of stone…sounds familiar?).
Although Cardan is as capricious and dramatic as ever we do get to see why he is the way he is. Black does not condone his behaviour and there is some great character development on his part.
The illustrations are simply stunning. There are quite a lot and they are all beautiful. Rovina Cai’s style and the tones she uses really suit this Black’s faerie world.
If you are a fan of The Folk of the Air trilogy I would definitely recommend you pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black – book review

71sHbfc2H9L.jpgCourt intrigue ahoy!

“We have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

Holly Black’s sensual and lush writing style perfectly complements the menacing world her heroine inhabits.
Black’s silvery prose brims with lavish descriptions: she renders the extravagances of the fairy realm, from their wild and dreadly revels to their taste for grandeur and riddles. Whether she is describing their dresses or foods Black truly succeeds in conveying how decadent and unpredictable the faerie world is. Black’s depicting of the fae and their ways is simultaneously alluring and threatening. Regardless of their appearance—whether they are painfully beautiful or possess disturbing attributes (I’m fairly sure there were a few fae who resembled spiders in here)—and personality, Black’s faerie’s speak in an invitingly mellifluous language. Given their inability to lie there is an emphasis on how they phrase things. Even when making threats or bargains the fae retain their ability to form beautifully articulated phrases.
Black’s faerie world is thrumming with the tantalising presence of magic. While this world offers many glamorous and temptation we are always aware of the danger it poses (to mortals in particular it’s definitely not all fun and games).

“[I]n the great game of princes and queens, I have been swept off the board.”

Jude is a compelling main character and her arc is one of the most interesting aspect of these novels. Perhaps this is due her being the narrator of these novels but she is definitely the most fleshed out character in this series. In this last instalment we really see how much progress she has made. Her resilient nature is stronger than ever. She is brave, if occasionally foolish, and can definitely spin a tale or two. Rather than letting herself be blinded by her thirst for power and revenge, she demonstrates how much she cares for her siblings and the faerie world.
The other characters, although entertaining enough, struck me as occasionally being a bit one dimensional. Jude’s sisters in particular. Taryn is given a sort of ‘redemption arc’ (similarly to other previously ‘wicked’ characters in this series) that just didn’t convince me. Her personality is…pretty bland. Vivi seemed to be the series’ comic relief…which in some ways worked, given that most of the other characters take themselves rather seriously.

“It’s ridiculous the way everyone acts like killing a king is going to make someone better at being one,” Vivi says. “Imagine if, in the mortal world, a lawyer passed the bar by killing another lawyer.”

Cardan is as amusing as ever. I was once again not entirely convinced by some of the reasons we are given about his ‘wicked’ past…I’d preferred for him to have grown into a better person rather than having been somewhat misunderstood. Nevertheless, I still loved his presence in this volume (still not a fan of his tail though, my best friend and I had a similar knee-jerk reaction when we read this: “His tail lashes back and forth, the furred end stroking over the back of my calf.”)

“Mortals are fragile,” I say.
“Not you,” he says in a way that sounds a little like a lament. “You never break.”

Usually romances are not my favourite aspect of a story or a series but in the case of Jude and Cardan…well, their chemistry is off the charts. Their scenes are just pure enjoyment.
It was also refreshing to see the way their relationship changes and develops throughout the course of this series. Their deadly romance is the perfect combination of angsty and dazzling. Now this is how you portray a convincing enemy-to-lovers romance.

“It wasn’t an accident, his choice of words. It wasn’t infelicitous. It was deliberate. A riddle made just for me.”

While the scope of this series is rather narrow Black has plenty of tricks up her sleeves and the dynamics between the various characters are always shifting. The fast paced plot of The Queen of Nothing has quite a few surprises along the way (maybe not as twisty as the ending of The Cruel Prince but still…).
The resolution felt too neat (the epilogue was particularly cheesy) but I still enjoyed seeing (or reading) how things unfolded.
At times I craved for a more leisurely pace amidst the heart-in-throat action, the many double-crossings and face offs.

While I did prefer The Cruel Prince to its follow ups, I would still heartily recommend this series (even if The Queen of Nothing makes for an entertaining, if a bit rushed, finale).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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

Untitled drawing (7)


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.

 

Borderline by Mishell Baker

After her suicide attempt, Millie has lost her legs and gained a myriad of scars. She has spent months in a private clinic, not really planning to get back out. But, when she receives an intriguing ’employment’ offer, she finds herself unable to refuse. Turns out that Hollywood is brimming with fairies, and people like Millie, who has BPD, are more attuned to this magical reality.

Borderline is a fast-paced and addicting read. Millie’s mind is in a constant buzz: her mood swings, and passionate reactions maintain the story’s momentum .
Millie soon discovers that the Arcadia Project is dealing with ‘out of the ordinary’ occurences and that her new ‘colleagues’ are rather *ahem* bonkers *ahem*…which led me to wonder, would they really trust a bunch of really untrustworthy and somewhat unbalanced people with maintaining order between these two worlds? Even Caryl, Millie’s boss, seems to have no clue how to keep them all in check. Millie is kept in the dark a lot of the time, which might allow her to wander off on her own, but is hardly credible. She is meant to obey a series of set rules that no one is willing to explain to her: she inevitably ends up breaking rules that she didn’t even know existed. The power structures in Arcadia Project is also sketchy. We don’t get a fully view on how they operate… Still, despite my initial disbelief, I soon found myself willing to believe that yes, there could be a group of dysfunctional individuals living together mostly tasked with tracking faerie folk gone AWOL.
Millie’s companions are not exactly welcoming, which further distances Millie from their organisation. Millie’s first case is the drive of the story. Turns out that fairies have human soulmates (Echos), and that they can greatly influence creative people: most artists and directors have a fairy friend inspiring them…the Echo of one of a famous – and much admired by Millie – director has seemingly disappeared…
I liked Baker’s take on fairies/magic. They are in some ways as one might expect them: they are alluring, they enjoy misleading humans, and there is a strong divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ fairies. I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea of them having human ‘soulmates’ but I soon become used to it. A thing that I really appreciated was how Baker pays attention to the ‘language’, in fact, Millie notices that newcomers fairies stress the wrong syllables.

Millie is a bit of a mess. And she knows it. I initially didn’t like how often she refers to her BPD as to explain her behaviour, as if readers are led to believe that Baker is justifying Millie’s selfish actions and sharp words. But it isn’t. Millie is just using the coping mechanism she has learned in her hospital stay. She is trying to understand her own actions, by putting them in perspective of her BPD and disability. The anger and frustration at the loss of her legs was intense. All of her emotions are vividly rendered, and while Millie is undoubtedly damaged, she carries a spark that makes her incredibly engaging. I loved her, in spite of her irrationality and hot temper. And, more importantly, I liked that this novel is about her. Yes, she forms various relationships – none of them romantic – but she remains the focus.
The other characterswell. They could be just as maddening. I often wondered if Millie was really deserving of their behaviours: she was often treated as this big hot mess (which, to be fair, she sort of is) but they themselves are offbeat… I couldn’t really get a good ‘feel’ of them; they were are all a bit too erratic. I was curious about them but I was hoping for a fuller picture of their personalities.

All in all, I wasn’t fully taken by all of the story’s aspects, but, I did find Borderline to be a hugely compelling read with a fresh spin to UF genre, and I soon grew accustomed to some of the more questionable scenarios.

 

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

First things first: I read both Tithe and Valiant, when I was about twelve or so, and I absolutely loved them. They influenced my later readings, for I had found myself desperately in want of more dark fairy tales.
To say that I was looking forward to The Cruel Prince would be an understatement. I was ecstatic when I discovered that Holly Black was writing more about the faerie world of her previous novels, so I impatiently awaited the release of this novel. I’m happy to say (or write) that the gorgeous cover and intriguing synopsis fulfilled – and surpassed – my high expectations.

One of the main characteristics of this novel is that it is extremely sensual. There are the more apparent lush scenes, but also there are many observations and remarks referring to Jude’s sensory faculties: there is an emphasis on smell, taste and touch. Because of this the faerie world is extremely vivid and clear cut. There is an almost tangible physicality to Jude’s surroundings, one that, more often than not, borders on being both dangerous and sexual. Holly Black is able to write of a scarily convincing world, by playing with established tropes but also by forging her own lore. Her fairy world is so satisfying. Her fairies are tantalizing: they play clever tricks, employ artful magic and live in alluring castles.

The narrator Jude, despite being a ‘mere‘ human, can hold her own ground against her immortal companions. Too many times we find a simply ‘likeable’ heroine, who is not nearly as complex or developed as her male counterpart or other secondary characters. Jude, instead, is one of – if not the – most absorbing characters of the story. She is nuanced and flawed, possessing an admirable resilience and an understable thirst for power. She is an unconventional heroine, and I loved her in spite – and because – of that. She confides in us, and while she isn’t always truthful, I felt connected to her. And while this novel may be called ‘The Cruel Prince’ Prince Cardan is not the main focus of the story, Jude plays the vital role in her own story. Still, Cardan was incredibly fascinating, and he too cannot be neatly fitted into the ‘antihero’ category. Holly doesn’t make condone his cruelty or his behaviour, and yet, she is able to give him other attributes that make him as complicated as Jude. There is an array of fully fleshed out side characters: there are many characters who make an impact on Jude and her story, her sisters, her ‘father’, her ‘Court’…
The story is at once fast paced and not. Many things happen but Holly Black never rushes the plot. There are almost leisurely passages in which we can glimpse the faerie world and its customs, and I was more than happy to see certain familiar faces…
A beautifully written captivating fairy tale, one that is satisfyingly eerie and intricate.

My Rating: 5 stars

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