Okay, I’m bumping this one up the schedule. Partly because it comes out soon (1st September in the US and 10th September in the UK, I believe) and partly because it’s great and you should read it.
As you’ve probably guessed from this being a pre-publication review and also because I’ve review a whole bunch of them recently, this was a book I got from NetGalley, so whatever I say here may not be final but it is honest. Blah blah blah. You know the drill.
If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, then this is the book for you. I read JS&MN quite a while ago now — I think it was 2010 when I first read it, although I’ve reread it since then — and I’ve never quite found a book that hit the same spots, but this one does. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a poorly disguised copy. It has many differences, but it also appeals to me because it emphasises all the things I liked most about JS&MN.
It’s very English. Both books are set in a historical version of England and both concern the state of English magic. However, what I loved about this is how its protagonists exist outside of the establishment, rather than as a part of it.
So let’s talk about its protagonists, because they were the thing I loved the most. Did you, when reading JS&MN, wish that Stephen Black was the main character? Or maybe you wished there were more women with a greater role — perhaps instead of suffering the whims of fairies, Lady Pole could have been a magician herself? If so, you’ll be delighted by what I’m about to tell you.
Zacharias, the main character, is the first black man to hold the title of Sorcerer Royal. Which you can imagine some people aren’t all that happy about. Judging by the kinds of people we tend to elect into Parliament, they probably still wouldn’t be, but in this version of Regency England, he faces even greater prejudice.
Then Prunella, an orphan, has struggles too: in this world, women aren’t considered capable of being magicians, and are in fact often forced to suppress their magical ability, sometimes at a cost to themselves. Oh, and she’s mixed-race, and nobody really knows who her parents were. You’d think being the most powerful sorceress in England would help sweep away those issues, but nope, they’re right there in front of her like a brick wall.
So what Zen Cho does is create characters who are able to be fully rounded people without every compromising on the obstacles they face. These characters are diverse and we know it: we are frequently reminded of the trouble it causes. But they frequently prove those prejudices wrong.
When one character refers to Zacharias’s skin colour as a minor issue, Prunella is quick to point out that while people are wrong to judge on it, that doesn’t make the judgement any less of a problem.
“You would not call it a trifle,” said Prunella in a low voice, “if you knew how his fellow Europeans use him.”
You tell him, Prunella.
Also, let’s just take a minute to appreciate the GIRL POWER in this book. So, this is kind of gross, and a minor spoiler, but at one point Prunella performs a certain kind of magic that requires a blood sacrifice. Zacharias thinks it a very dangerous magic because it requires so much blood, and most magicians then struggle with the rest of the spell because they’re weakened. And what does she do?
Well, something that she’s too embarrassed to say in front of a gentleman. In other words, she uses her period blood. This motif crops up elsewhere — this idea that these ‘females’ disparaged by society for their physical weaknesses, actually have a hold over their own kinds of magic, things which would weaken the supposedly superior men.
(I apologies for anything that might seem cissexist here — I totally get that not all girls have periods etc etc, but this is Regency England, so we’re not looking at a nuanced idea of gender and sex, you know?)
Or in a discussion of necromancy, when Zacharias objects that it’s not a fitting subject for a girl, he’s reminded:
Childbirth is no very delicate process, and it is women who lay out the dead
Even within their own social circles, fulfilling the role they’re forced to play, women are still more badass than he’s giving them credit for. And he learns from this.
But also there are non-magical examples of women being awesome. Prunella knows to make a good impact on society, she needs to get the approval of women. Even if it’s a husband she’s looking for, in order to support herself, at this stage it’s not the men who matter. No. She must convince their mothers, wives, sisters: they are the rulers of high society.
There are so many awesome women and characters in this. And I loved the relationship between Prunella and Zacharias and how it developed from wariness through to trust as he began to teach her more and more.
I don’t even know what else to say. There’s so much magic in this book. Politics, too — magicians are a scheming bunch. Unlike JS&MN, it doesn’t really focus on genuine historical events like Waterloo, although there are plenty of tensions with France that are mentioned in passing. This world has a lot more magicians — it’s magic that’s decreasing, not the number of people using it — and that’s an accepted part of how things work.
Maybe a better representation than comparing it to JS&MN would be to say it’s like a cross of that with the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. It’s certainly a lot shorter and less dense than JS&MN, but it’s not as snarky as Bartimaeus.
You know what? I don’t know what to compare it to. It isn’t nearly as funny as my usual favourites, nor does it have so many lines that made me pause and highlight them because they were beautiful. Yet despite this, I still loved it. I finished the book grinning because I found the ending so satisfying.
If you want a book where the main characters say SCREW YOU to the establishment (alas, not literally), do things their own way, overcome prejudice and barriers thrown up in front of them, and make the world a better place while they’re doing it — with a solid dose of magic and intrigue and excitement — then this is a book you should read.
Because it’s great.