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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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

 

 

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley — review

9781473632523.jpgAlthough I did—for the most part—find Lucy Worsley’s prose to be compelling, I thought that many of her arguments were unconvincing and biased.
Of course historians have their biases, but shouldn’t they at least try to distance themselves from their subject?
The problem I have with this biography props up in the author’s introduction:

“While I’ll try to put Jane back into her social class and time, I must admit that I also write as a signed up ‘Janeite’, a devotee and worshipper. I too have searched for my own Jane, and naturally I have found her to be simply a far, far better version of myself: clever, kind, funny, but also angry at the restrictions of her life, someone tirelessly searching for ways to be free and creative. I know who I want Jane Austen to be, and I put my cards on the table. This is, unashamedly, the story of my Jane, every word of it written with love.”

Although in this instance Worsley is being upfront of her lack of objectivity, her biography on Austen seems quick to dismiss and criticise other historians’ vision of Austen. She is critical of their attempts to romanticise Austen, both her personality and life. Yet she falls for the very same trap, as the Austen that emerges from this longwinded biography is very much a heroine, one that could easily feature in Austen’s own novels.
Worsley’s cleverly implements certain sections of Austen’s own letters to corroborate with her image of this author. At times her suppositions and speculations regarding Austen’s character and motivation are made to seem as facts. Unlike other historians and biographers, who often misconstrued Austen’s personality and life, Worsley seems to imply at a personal connection to her subject, one that makes her into one few capable to discerning the truth about Austen. Curiously enough Worsley reveals that: “I was once a pupil at the Abbey School myself, and Jane Austen was our most famous ex-student”.
And often Worsley used this BBC-type of tone that sounded both patronising and childish. Her attempts to engage the reader seemed a bit cheesy.

“What a treat. And just up the road from the cottage, at Chawton Great House, lived one of Jane’s favourite girls in the whole family, Fanny Austen.”

There were lots of surelys and no wonders, and a lot of rhetorical questions, which yeah, didn’t really work. If anything they reminded of her presence.

“But if you follow me this far in the idea that Jane was undermining the very moment where you’d expect marriage to be most praised, there could be an explanation. Remember that ‘double-voiced’ nature of Jane’s letters? The same applies to her novels. At first reading, these are stories about love and marriage and the conventional heterosexual happily-ever-after. Only at the second does a sneaky doubt perhaps creep in to suggest that maybe marriage is not the best thing that could ever happen to these women.”

Worsley’s biography on Austen isn’t as poignant or as revolutionary as its biographer seems to think. She treats her subject with too much familiarity, and her interjections had an almost jarring effect (there were a lot of “I think” and “I wonder”).

“I hope that he hadn’t told Jane what he was doing, so that she did not have to face the instant rejection.”

Worse still is that Worsley bases many of her arguments regarding Austen’s personality and actions on the author’s own novels. While I’m sure that when writing her novels Austen will have drawn inspiration from some of her own experiences, to solely link her life to those of her fictional characters makes for a rather skewed account of the author herself. These comparisons were thin at best, and most of the time plainly misleading.

“It has been suggested that with these clever layers of meaning, Jane was perhaps even more subversive than we give her credit for.”

Worsley tries to elevate herself, suggesting time and again that only she views the true Austen (going against her very own words since she initially stated that her Austen was very much hers). Yet, to me, the Worsley’s Austen is an unconvincing and unabashedly fictionalised version of the real author.
This is a less a biography than a fictionalised take on Austen, one from a self-confessed ‘Janeite’ who is quick to knock down other historians accounts and readings of Austen’s life and letters
The biography also had this weird insertions that seemed adverts of some sort:

“While Jane did not forget Lyme, the town did not forget her, either. You can still eat at Jane’s Cafe, walk in Jane Austen’s Garden, and buy souvenirs in the Persuasion gift shop today.”

Still, I did find that when Worsley was merely writing about the Georgian era (the lifestyle and traditions of those of Austen’s class). There were some interesting tidbits abut their customs and daily routines.
Overall however I don’t recommend reading this if you are looking for to read some informative, or credible, material about Austen. Worsley’s constant snubs at her ‘competitors’ were tiring, especially considering that she seems to do exactly the same thing.
Just because she is a fan doesn’t make her opinion of Austen more valid or true. Yes, while everyone can certainly believe that they have a certain connection to an author or historical figure, to use this ‘connection’ to validate one’s interpretation of this person is ill-advised. Excusing your partiality by saying that it was done ‘with love’ is a bit of a cheap trick.

“I like to think that this last, insubstantial image of Jane running through the Hampshire grass in fact shows her running away from all the eager hungry biographers keen to get their teeth into her.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — book review

It isn’t surprising that Pride and Prejudice has become such a classic, one that inspired thousands of adaptations and re-tellings. Many of the story’s components have become conventions…and to dismiss this novel as a ‘girl’s book’ is not only incredibly superficial but it negates Jane Austen’s clever social commentary.
While many of its characters are satirical personifications of certain types of people (the solipsistic and frivolous mother, the disinterested father, the silly sister(s), the intellectual one, and so on) it does so in a compelling way that makes them all the more vivid in the reader’s mind. Austen’s witty narrative might not appeal to all readers but it is undeniable that her story presents us with sharp-witted portraits.
In spite of her ‘prejudices’ Liz was an admirable heroine whose loyalty to her family, and in particular to her sister Jane, made her all the more likeable. Her ‘romance’ with Darcy is but one of the many strands of this rich story that deals with class and gender. What happens between the characters is conveyed in a subtle manner, through carefully selected words…yet the narrative is always buzzing with a vibrant energy.
An entertaining read that definitely lived up to its fame.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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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.

 

The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

 

“Would you say you are a person who follows her head or her heart?”
She stared at him, momentarily diverted. Such an odd thing to ask. “I am rational person, sir. I believe I follow my head.”
“I see.” The Comte boed. “Then I wish you good luck.”

After having recently read a few sequel that suffered from the dreaded ‘second-book-syndrome’ I am more than happy to say that The Dark Days Pact was perhaps even better than its predecessor.
I think I have read that this series is being called a ‘Fantasy of Manners‘, and I couldn’t agree more. Lady Helen is a must for any fans of authors such as Jane Austen. Not only does Goodman paint an incredibly vivid and detailed picture of Regency England but, she has also included a cast of complex and realistic characters.
It was hard to put down. Helen’s world is simply beguiling: the atmospheric setting is combined with dialogues that can be both full of wit or quite moving. It is the kind of book that makes you smile like an idiot, laugh-out-loud, and clutch your paperback copy very hard.
In short The Dark Days Pact is a gripping and delightful read.

‘Every moment of every day she was having to pick her way through lies and secrets to find a pathway over a deadly and muddied morality. And it was never going to end. This was her life now.’

I found this sequel to be a bit darker than the first one. It had a more mature vibe to it. Helen no longer is a naive girl, and the world she inhabits is far from pretty or safe. Her new position in the Dark Days Club asks a lot of her and to be Reclaimer means to abandon the ways in which she was raised: rules that restricted her life as a ‘lady’ are no longer valid. Still, Helen is far from free.

“Indeed I think that everyone is of the belief that a woman’s world is always lesser and smaller than a man’s. Perhaps they are right. It is what the Church teaches us, after all. But you, my lady, cannot abide by that belief. You must live the kind of woman’s life that has never been lived before.”

She is soon made to learn how to pass as a man: the way they talk, walk and act. Goodman makes many clever observations in this regard. The freedom of men at the time is somewhat exhilarating for Helen. She enjoys walking in their comfortable clothes and the privilege of saying more or less whatever she wants. In fact, Helen starts liking being in charge. She likes her powers and the strength and advantages they give her.

“I will not let you disappear,” she said, tightening her hold. “You kept me sane when my strength came upon me. I will do the same for you.”

Helen herself grows a lot in this book. Carlston isn’t always there for her and she faces quite a lot all on her own. She has the best intentions at heart, but she isn’t a softy. She pushes her fears away when needed. In brief, she is a tough yet sweet cookie. Both level headed and passionate.

“There have been many times when I have wanted to walk away,” Carlston said softly, as if he had read her mind. “But you and I have been brought up with the same immutable knowledge: without adherence to our word, we are worth nothing.”

Since Helen comes really ‘into her own’ in this story, her relationships also ‘grow’ alongside her. Her interactions with other characters could be in equal parts amusing, witty and sweet. Despite Helen’s lack of control over recent events, she is not one to back down. Her steadfast behaviour inspired and surprised others; Darcy, her maid, is her number one fan. Mr Hammond thinks of her as a comrade whom he admires deeply.

Mr Hammond bowed his head. “Of course he knows. How could he not? But there is a chasm between what is said and what is said.”

And Carlston…Well, I am glad to say that despite not dominating the story, we get to see a lot more of him. He was a bit of cypher in The Dark Days Pact, but here, we suddenly start to understand him. His relationship with Helen was a deliciously slow burn.

‘[…]she could feel his gaze upon her skin like a whisper touch. It seemed she could not please him whatever she did; either she was too much the warrior or too much the woman.’

Their feelings for one another are sadly not their priorities. Carlston isn’t doing so well while Helen is forced to obey Pike’s orders – despite despising having to. Still, Goodman offers us a few heartfelt moments between Carlston and Helen.

She cupped his jaw, his breath warm against her fingers. Slowly, he turned into the curve of her palm, cut lip pressed against her skin. She heard two whispered words, felt them kissed into her flesh: amore mio. My love. Two words: the shock of them held her still.

As far as the ‘baddies’ of this book, it is hard to say. There aren’t any, not really. Most of the characters fall somewhere onto a morally ‘gray-ish’ area. Deceivers are not always as evil as Helen was made to believe. Helen herself will be forced to discover a darker side to herself.

“Your sense…mon Dieu. You humans do not appreciate the glory of your senses. To taste food, to touch skin, to hear music.”

Goodman’s writing is detailed and evocative. She meticulously depicts the social behaviours and moral conventions of the time. Each scene was made incredibly vivid by her carefully thorough descriptions.
The theme and settings often reminded me of typical Gothic novels, however, Goodman never falls into any clichès of that genre. If anything she is mocking the most stereotypical tropes by having a strong – and powerful – female character such as Helen.

“Oh my,” Delia breathed. “Stolen bodies, energy whips, feeding upon human energy. It is all so,” her shoulders twitched, “Gothic.

Once again, I want to stress just how exciting The Dark Days Pact is. It has it all: humor, drama, action, mystery and romance. And, as the cherry-on-the-top, it also has an interesting and complex main character. Go read it!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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