Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

About a year ago, in preparation for the BBC miniseries adaptation, I reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  This was the first time I'd revisited Clarke's novel since I first read it about ten years ago, and what struck me in this rereading--aside, that is, from its reminder that this is a special, unusual, and exceptional novel--was how very political Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is.  It's not something that one hears discussed very often--partly because Jonathan Strange is so much its own thing that, in the absence of a tradition that springs from it, one doesn't find it discussed very much at all.  And partly, because Clarke's handling of her political subtext is, depending on how charitable you want to be, either halting and incomplete, or, in keeping with the rest of the novel, not an easy fit with any of the templates we use for how genre fiction can address issues like racism, misogyny, and colonialism.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Strange, in which two upper class English magicians try to use their abilities to advance their nation's interests during the Napoleonic Wars, is as political as they come.  As the magicians try to redefine magic as something fundamentally English--and thus a tool of England's imperial expansion--they fail to notice the toll it takes on women, people of color, and people of lower class, or indeed to acknowledge that such people have magical power of their own.  The novel's ending, in which one of its leads prophetically announces that "England is full of magicians," seems to presage a profound change in its world, alongside the return of magic and re-wilding of England, in which the existing social order is upended.  But Clarke has also been criticized for not giving enough space to characters who are not white, upper class men, even as she acknowledges that this absence is a flaw in her protagonists' worldview--there are no female or non-white magicians in the novel, and the one lower-class character who practices magic often feels as if his own story has been pushed aside by the two main characters'.

Zen Cho's debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (following her exceptional short story collection Spirits Abroad, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons last year), feels like both an homage and a response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  Its setting is virtually identical to Clarke's novel: England in the late 18th century, in a world in which the normal progression of history has coincided with the development of magical abilities.  The style, an arch pastiche of early 19th century fiction in the vein of Jane Austen, similarly recalls Clarke.  As in Jonathan Strange, the source of magic in this world is fairies--though Cho expands on Clarke's use of English folklore; in her world, the fairylands of different nations exist side by side on another plane of existence from ours, which allows her to incorporate magical creatures from the mythology of her native Malaysia, as well as familiar faces like Titania and Oberon.  The fading of magic is an important question in both novels, as well as an ending in which magic is reintroduced to England, with unpredictable results.  But Cho has quite deliberately and consciously cast as the protagonists of her story a black man (who is also a former slave), and a biracial woman, whose social status, right to use magic, and very Englishness are constantly called into question.

Zacharias Wythe is the titular Sorcerer to the Crown, a role he inherited from his adoptive father Sir Stephen Wythe, who purchased and freed him as a child after recognizing his magical talent.  Sir Stephen hoped that by nurturing Zacharias's considerable gifts, he might explode the belief that only white people are capable of practicing magic.  It is thus up to Zacharias to "prove" his race's abilities and right to participate in civil society, which naturally complicates his role as Sorcerer Royal, the man responsible for ensuring England's well-being on the magical plane.  The resentment and scheming against Zacharias by jealous and racist colleagues is only intensified by the fact that English magic is fading, and that the fairy court has refused to allow English magicians to engage the services of familiars, who give them access to greater power and abilities.  On his way to investigate the cause of the drop of magical "resource," Zacharias stops at a school for young witches, where he encounters Prunella Gentleman, the quasi-ward of the headmistress, someone who has been tolerated because of her general competence and agreeable nature, but whose mixed-race heritage means that her social status is always precarious.  When an incident at the school causes Prunella's benefactress to downgrade her to the role of servant, the outraged young woman decides to seek out her own fortune, and seizes on Zacharias as a means of getting to London and launching herself into polite society.

The scenes at the girls' school give Cho her first opportunity to use her fantastic premise to reflect and discuss real-world prejudices.  A school for magical young ladies (or "gentlewitches," as they are called here) is not, as we might imagine, devoted to helping them develop their magical talent, but rather to teaching them how to suppress it, because using magic is considered unladylike: "Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint."  The official dogma of the English magical establishment, in fact, holds that women are too weak to control and handle magic, but behind the scenes, magic is practiced by all genders, so long as they do it in the right way and for the right reasons.
Zacharias had seen too many hags in kitchens and nurseries, too many herbwomen and hedgewitches in villages around the country, not to know that women were perfectly capable of magic--at least, women of the laboring classes.  Among their betters it was genteel to turn a blind eye to such illicit activities.  One would not like one's own wife or daughter to indulge in witchcraft, but it did not serve to be overscrupulous when feminine magic could prove so convenient in one's servants.
In other words, Cho is using magic as a metaphor for work, and for the double standard that takes it for granted that working class women can do backbreaking, day-long labor, but upper class women are too delicate to handle the kind of work that their husbands and brothers do.  That the girls in Mrs. Daubeney's school frequently break out in displays of uncontrollable magic feels like a reference to every novel and movie about the overheated, hysterical atmosphere at such schools, where girls are sent to have their wildness trained out of them, only to feed on each other's repressed emotions and anxieties.

Paradoxically, it is Prunella's race, and the precarious position it imposes on her, that allows her to escape this trap.  Neither a young lady, nor a servant, nor a real daughter to Mrs. Daubeney, she has a certain kind of freedom to break the rules (as Zacharias later says of himself "There are advantages to being outcast ... One is set at liberty from many anxieties.  There is no call to worry about what others will think, when it is clear that they already think the worst").  When Zacharias, who is already shocked by the punishing methods Mrs. Daubeney is employing to train the magic out of her students, discovers that Prunella has tremendous magical abilities, he seizes on her as his own counterpart--someone who will prove to society that women can do high-level magic, just as he has proven that it is possible for black people to do the same.  Prunella, meanwhile, is less interested in becoming a magician than in securing her own social and financial independence.  She agrees to submit to Zacharias's training, but only if he provides her an entrée into society so that she can find a husband.

Much as it owes to and references Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in the scenes in which Prunella and Zacharias clash about the wisdom and propriety of her plan to travel with him to London, it becomes clear that Sorcerer to the Crown has another, powerful antecedent, the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer.  The similarity only becomes clearer when the two arrive in London, and Prunella repeatedly steamrolls Zacharias's objections to her plan to present herself to high society as the mysterious daughter of an unnamed but supposedly wealthy gentleman.  It's a premise that repeats in several of Heyer's novel (the one I'm familiar with is Cotillion)--a determined, headstrong, unscrupulous-yet-basically-good young woman who is willing to do anything to achieve her place in society, and who imposes on a more proper, bewildered man through the simple expedient of refusing to take no for an answer.  Much of the novel's humor--and this is a deeply funny novel--comes from scenes that seem to channel Heyer, in which Prunella turns her laser-like focus and considerable ingenuity not to her magical training, but to questions of fashion, social standing, and matchmaking.
It had been her intention to avoid Zacharias if she could, since she presumed he was at the Ball, but in fact when she saw him she was so consumed by disaster that she hurried towards him, grateful to see a familiar face.

"Mr. Wythe, what is to be done?" she exclaimed.  "Mak Genggang assured me that the sky knew these things, but it is clear to me that the sky knows nothing of high society, and I wish I had never come!  It was very unwise--indeed, it is nothing less than a disaster!"

"I cannot but agree," said Zacharias.  "But if you think so, why did you come?"

Prunella was too troubled to attend.  "Only look at my dress!" she said.  "To think of wearing hoop skirts and silk taffeta when every other young female is in white muslin!  I do not know if the sky meant to be disobliging, or if it is merely ignorant.  Surely it must have seen that this not at all the thing.  I look a very guy!"
The basic conceit of Heyer novels like Cotillion is that a person with very little social capital or standing--women, and usually women with little financial wherewithal--attaches themselves to someone who has both, using them as a stepping stone to respectability and a chance at a good match (before, of course, falling in love).  Her heroines get to ignore propriety--the rules that say that they are compromising themselves by being around their reluctant rescuers, or the mores that frown on social-climbing and husband-hunting--because they know that those rules were created to keep them subservient and maintain a social order that they could never escape by behaving properly.  The fact that Zacharias and Prunella are both people of color complicates this story, because though Zacharias is privileged, in some ways, by his gender and wealth, he is also more disadvantaged by his race than Prunella, and more specifically by the combination of his race and gender.  It might, in some circumstances, be more acceptable for a woman of color to marry into high society, than for a black former slave to achieve high rank and office through his own abilities--the latter might pose more of a challenge to the racist underpinnings of Regency society.

That Zacharias and Prunella have such different reactions to that racism, and such different experiences in Regency society, is, however, only partly due to their genders or wealth.  In part, it's simply down to the fact that they are such different people, and one of the most interesting things that Sorcerer to the Crown does is to suggest that different people can experience racism and prejudice in very different ways, even in the same setting.  Zacharias is, as one of his friends says, "the most nice-conscienced, duty-bound fellow," devoted to the memory of his benefactor, even as he struggles with resentment of Sir Stephen, for separating Zacharias from his parents, and for being the representative of the very system that enslaved them in the first place.  As he says, he is "held by bonds of gratitude," and in addition, by bonds of respectability--having had it drummed into him since childhood that he represents his race and their ability to participate fully in society, Zacharias is unsurprisingly studied and careful in his behavior and reactions.  He suppresses his anger and resentment of the racism and suspicion that greet him, while at the same time, Prunella simply steamrolls over them by refusing to admit their existence--and by questioning the importance of the institutions and conventions that Zacharias is devoted to.

Though fascinating, the profound differences between Zacharias and Prunella, and how they deal with racism, are also the source of the novel's most significant imbalance.  The fact that the rules seem so different for them can make it hard to feel that they are part of the same story, and the fact that the emotional registers of their plot strands are so different can lead to feelings of whiplash.  Zacharias gets most of the novel's affecting, gut-punching moments--for example when we realize that, for all that his English contemporaries see him as a foreigner, to actual foreigners, be they fairies or people of color from other parts of the world, he is a European, and thus doesn't belong anywhere.  But at the same time, his determination to be respectable and not give into anger means that he is an essentially passive character, while Prunella is constantly acting on both his and her own behalf.  Cho is clearly making a point by juxtaposing such different characters with such different stories, whose problems nevertheless derive from the same place--and who are able to find in each other a friend who can understand their predicament--but the balance between the two characters, their stories, and their approaches to the challenges facing them feels a little wobbly.

I haven't, in fact, said much about the actual plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, which involves, aside from the already-discussed question of England's dwindling magic supply, a plot to supplant Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal, another plot to assassinate him, and a delegation from the island of Janda Baik, which throws Zacharias and Prunella into the path of Mak Genggang, a powerful, no-nonsense Malaysian witch who injects a great deal of humor into the novel, as well as a reminder that the characters' obsessions, both magical and cultural, are only the parochial concerns of one tiny corner of the world.  All of these elements tie together in a way that is satisfying, but perhaps a little too neat and easy--one never really fears that the dangers facing our heroes will come to pass, because the heart of the novel is clearly less in these elements, and more in the comedy of manners surrounding Prunella's introduction to society, and the difficulties that she and Zacharias have navigating that society as people of color.  In that sense, it's possible that the Heyer plot grates against Cho's choice of genre and story, because the fundamental attribute of a Heyer novel is that no one in it takes its events very seriously, whereas Sorcerer to the Crown ultimately concludes that its events are of utmost importance to England (though even then, not all the time--in the book's climactic fight scene between a dragon and a sea monster, the two turn out to be distant cousins, and pause their battle to do a bit of genealogy).

In its conclusion, however, Sorcerer to the Crown seems to use the disconnect between the tones of Zacharias and Prunella's stories--and their worldviews--to make a powerful statement against Zacharias's approach of appeasement and careful respectability.  Prunella turns out to have an amazing magical heritage, which allows her to take center stage in the English magical political system--a role to which, the novel implies, she is far more suited than Zacharias, because she doesn't share his obsession with "proving" that she is worthy of respect, but simply demands it.  The same unscrupulousness that makes it possible for her to shake off racism and the norms of polite behavior in her pursuit of social status, solidifies into something more serious, and a great deal scarier, when Prunella shows that she is willing to do whatever it takes to assume power.  To cement her power, and save Zacharias, she must take a ruthless, cold-blooded course of action, one that shocks the men around her.  There is the potential for a troubling reading here--the fact that Prunella is able to make this kind of sacrifice, or that Mak Genggang advises Zacharias, after he defeats a political rival, to "set fire to his house, too, and sell his children to pirates," can be taken as saying that these two women of color are inherently more bloodthirsty than the "civilized" white men around them.  It might have been good if the novel had more strongly stressed the point that the same English gentlemen who are scandalized by Prunella's actions are complicit in, and benefit from, acts of cruelty that dwarf hers--most obviously, the slave trade.  But even without that reminder from Cho, it's easy to realize that Prunella is merely bringing an already existing cruelty to the surface, using it to protect people of color for once instead of victimizing them.

This is, perhaps, to make Sorcerer to the Crown sound more serious than it actually is.  This is still a comedic, romantic novel, the kind of story that ends with a marriage proposal, and a fun, impeccably stylish read that recreates the tone of Heyer's novels perfectly.  That tone isn't always perfectly balanced with Cho's use of it as a delivery system for a darker, more serious discussion of slavery and colonialism, and ultimately this, as well as the too-neat resolution of many of its plot strands, leaves the novel feeling a little scattershot--still, perhaps, a little too indebted to its inspirations, both Clarke and Heyer.  (Some of this might be addressed in later volumes in the projected trilogy of which Sorcerer is the first volume, but I have to admit that, much as I enjoyed it, I should have been happier if it were a standalone volume.)  Nevertheless, Sorcerer to the Crown's response to and development of the ideas raised in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is impeccable--and necessary--and despite some shakiness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  I've been looking forward to Cho's work ever since I first read her short stories three or four years ago, and hoping that someone would pick up the threads raised in Clarke's novel and do something more with them for nearly a decade.  It's a delight, and not really a surprise, to find both coming from the same source.

17 comments:

Harold Smithson said...

Clarke herself has expressed regret that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ignores most of its female characters. She wrote The Ladies of Grace Adieu to make up for it.

Chris said...

Should one have read "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell" before "Sorcerer To The Crown?" They both sound interesting, but the last one definitely sounds like something I'd enjoy more.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Harold:

Yes, of course I know The Ladies of Grace Adieu, though most of the stories in it were published years before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - only one piece is original to the collection, and another was published around the same time as the novel to publicize it.

Chris:

I don't think either novel is necessary to understand the other (if anything, I would say that reading Cotillion will add a lot more to your enjoyment of Sorcerer to the Crown than Jonathan Strange will). They're both really worth reading, though perhaps not in quick succession, so as not to force a comparison between books that are worth appreciating in their own right.

Aoede said...

Yes, I have seen more than my fair share of reviews going on about how "Sorcerer" is better because JS&MN was sooooo dullllll or JS&MN was better because "Sorcerer" isn't, like, epic enough or something -- almost never framed in terms of personal preference!

Daniel Ortlepp said...

There's a lot to be said about the thematic role of violence in Sorcerer to the Crown, particularly the way Cho never lets us forget that it underpins any number of grand societal and cultural structures. She does this very effectively, a number of times, by first mentioning some practice as a throwaway or near-throwaway reference, then bringing it up again and revealing its true grotesqueness just as the reader has moved on from it; I'm thinking of the Seven Shackles, the Exchange, and the Hallett procedure in particular.

I mention this because I'm curious about the importance of this latter, in regards to your point about Prunella and Mak Genggang potentially seeming inherently more violent than the white English sorcerers. Since a goodly proportion of these Englishmen are, almost literally, thirsty for Zacharias's blood, could this suggest that violence is at the heart of Cho's sorcery in general, rather than being particularised to women of colour?

(On this point, there's a certain wild violence in the realm of the familiars - who are, after all, at the heart of Cho's magic system; towards the end of the book, one familiar makes an offhand reference to another having eaten 'one of [his] brothers on a rampage', and then of course there's Leofric.)

Harold Smithson said...

"Most of the stories in it were published years before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - only one piece is original to the collection, and another was published around the same time as the novel to publicize it."

I actually did not know that. Thank you for telling me that.

nicoleandmaggie said...

You know, this Jane Austen/Georgette Heyer with magic thing was a genre LONG before JS&MN came on the scene. You're missing out on a lot of books that have far superior entertainment value (and you know, developed female characters).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Daniel:

That's a very good point about the Hallett, though I think perhaps not one that the book hits as strongly as it might have. The fact that Zacharias - and indeed almost everyone around him - takes it in stride that his colleagues intend to, essentially, draw and quarter him, as opposed to their sickened response to Prunella's ultimately much less cruel act, is clearly significant, but I feel like the book could have done more to point out how bloodthirsty the other magicians would have to be to be willing to do something like that (and how hypocritical to be willing to take such an action while still calling themselves civilized).

I didn't really get to The Exchange in the review, though it felt similarly significant. I took it as a metaphor for the corrosive effect that institutions like slavery and colonialism have on the people who enact them - see Sir Stephen's repeated observations that people think the familiars undertake their role willingly, without considering that no one would make themselves a lifelong servant merely for love of their master. But again, I'm not sure Cho does quite enough with this element - its handling feels a little muddled, most obviously the fact that the person who most suffers from The Exchange throughout the novel is Zacharias.

The point about the book taking for granted the violence of the familiars feels not unconnected to the way it casually accepts Mak Genggang's violent outlook - which is to say, perhaps more problematic than Cho allows for.

nicoleandmaggie:

Yes, I'm aware of that subgenre, but it doesn't tend to interest me for the same reason that I don't read the various Austen sequels and para-literature. I thought the Austen pastiche in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was well done but it's not why the novel is brilliant, and similarly if all that I'd found to admire about Sorcerer to the Crown was how it revisits Cotillion, well, the original novel is still there, isn't it? Both books do more than just imitate Austen or Heyer with added magic, which is why I enjoyed them.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Are you sure you are aware of the genre? Because most of the books aren't just imitations with magic, any more that the pretentious and boring dr. Strange is.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I take it back -- JS had the innovation to subvert the genre by treating women as props, thus attracting critical notice and seeming innovative by people who otherwise ignore women's books.

Unknown said...

Abigail, you keep mentioning that there are aspects (like the cruelty of her world) that Cho could have done more to highlight. One of my reactions while reading the book was that, even though I loved the ideas she was playing with, I found her development of many of them frustratingly underdeveloped. I kept wishing she were writing this five or six novels into her career. The problems we're noting here seem to be first novel problems: Cho's not in complete command of her craft yet. And that's perfectly natural. One of the many astonishing things about Jonathan Strange is that it's a first novel. How many of those ever come out so fluent and fully formed? It's normal to take a couple (or even several) novels for a writer to learn how to develop and pace one.

In the end, Sorceror to the Crown feels more like an apprentice work, and--especially given how this this is the first book of a trilogy--I only hope Cho's skills will continue evolving to the point where she can develop all of her thematic concerns as thoroughly as they demand while still balancing them along with her plot.

(Also, first time commenting, but I've following the blog for years. I just want to say thank you for maintaining it. It really is something special.)

Standback said...

I feel like you found much, much more meat to this book than I did.

I started out loving the book. Zacharias's impossible position, and his double-edged relationship with his adoptive father, were fascinating and ripe with potential. The scenes at the School for Gentlewitches were fantastic, combining humor with pointed observations on power dynamics and how society brings women to the point where they're happily orchestrating and implementing their own oppression.

But past that point, the story seemed to just dump these two characters into a plot and a society full of incompetent cartoonish villains. Zacharias's goals are to serve England and restore magic; Prunella's are to better her social position and gain power; but more and more through the book, the entire rest of society seem to be utter buffoons - I had a hard time mustering any interest in whether Zacharias manages to save them, whether Prunella manages to win herself a position among them. And while the difficulties of race and gender remain, after that opening point I don't feel like anything new is said about them, or as though they come into play in new ways. At the beginning society is all whispering about Zacharias; they just keep on whispering the exact same things right up until they build up enough steam to publicly execute him. At the beginning Prunella's potential is ignored and her prospects are poor; people keep right on ignoring her the whole book.

I confess, some of the things you find interesting are things I find uninteresting in the extreme. The idea that different people experience oppression in different ways, react to it in different ways, seems trivial to me - as I'm reading you, the alternative would be that anybody experiencing any form of oppression would be basically the same, which would be laughable. (Indeed, the variety of forms of oppression, blunt and subtle, and the variety of reactions to it, are a lot of why this topic has been such a rich vein for storytelling in recent years.)

Other parts of your reading also don't ring true for me - the story isn't resolved by the strength of an oppressed individual rising up to protect others; it's resolved by its main characters conveniently being granted immense amounts of power, while the entire surrounding society has none at all. You see this as Prunella "using [cruelty] to protect people of color for once instead of victimizing them," but I can't say I'm much impressed with murdering one creature in order to save another -- particularly another who so very explicitly placed himself in his predicament. The original Exchange, where one's soul is consumed upon death, fails to hold much horror, since practically no emphasis is placed on the importance of one's soul after death. Zacharias makes it worse when he offers up living torment, and Prunella makes it worse yet again by making someone else pay the price. Protecting people of color is well and good, but I honestly saw that as much less a point of this thread; I mostly saw it as creating ominous, hand-waved conflict and angst with the Exchange, and then finding some suitably dramatic climax to the arc. (If anything in this thread is of interest to me, it's how little regard the magicians and sorcerers of England must have for their own souls, for this to be an obvious, unquestioned, and never-spoken-of price any sorcerer needs pay for his much-admired power.)

Some of this may be what you were getting at when you say the comedy and romance aren't always balanced with the darker, more serious elements. For myself, I felt the balance was very far off indeed, undermining a lot of the value the book's fans are finding in it.

zahrawithaz said...

Delighted to see this review and degree of thoughtfulness given to this book.

I have to admit to being frustrated with this book, because while I love so much of what it does, especially in its descriptions of how slavery and colonialism underpin its Regency society and Zacharias' emotions, the tonal whiplash was too much for me. I really did feel like I was reading two books, one an intelligent, historically grounded examination of racism and imperialism, the other a Heyer romp where the heroine's success was never to be doubted because the narrative itself bends to her desires.

And while I completely agree that the book wants us to see Prunella's amoral ruthlessness as a better solution than Zacharias's noble respectability politics, the tonal and genre shifts complicate that for me; it feels like judging Zacharias for not succeeding when the forces of history are arrayed against him, or condemning the victims of slavery and racism for not resisting in the right way. (I also think Zacharias' extreme nobility and passiveness is related to his role as a romantic match for Prunella, which further muddies the muddle.)

Also, is there a reason that you never mention that Prunella's mixed-race heritage is white and Indian in this review? It felt significant to me within the book; part of the difference in her and Zacharias's experience seemed to come from the reality that Cho's English society really does react differently to blackness than it does to Indian-ness, and that it hasn't yet figured out the latter's place in the racial hierarchy, though the idea also felt under-developed. Horrific though it is, England's colonization of South and Southeast Asia was very different from the slave trade.

I also heartily wish this had been a standalone novel; the author has so much talent, but a lot of things here didn't work, and I'd love to see what she would do with more experience and a new setup or cast of characters.

zahrawithaz said...

One more thing--a lot of books in this genre (which I'll loosely call Regency fantasy) uses their fantasy elements to smuggle modern-day mores into a society very heavily steeped in overt sexism, racism, and imperialism.

There are literally dozens of examples of this in Naomi Novik's Temeraire books (whose main dragon character often literally questions social hierarchies), like the breed of dragons that will only tolerate female captains, leading to women empowered in a way that was historically impossible. More importantly, over the course of the series the presence of powerful dragons (and superior relationships with them) in the colonized world curtails European power over these regions. Because of dragons, colonialism is effectively halted at a certain historical moment.

But the end result of that is the erasure of racism, colonization, and other misdeeds by people with power and privilege (not to mention world-building that quickly becomes nonsensical).

JS&MN is unusual, I think, in that magic only serves to intensify the hierarchical structures of oppression in everyday life, though as you point out the end result is to further marginalize already marginalized characters within the narrative itself.

Sorcerer to the Crown is interesting, I think, because in some ways it's doing the former--Zacharias' position as Sorcerer to the Crown, and almost everything in Prunella's narrative arc are about magic empowering the characters of color in ways that weren't possible in our historical world. But the end result isn't about denying the existence of structures like racism in order to make the early 19th c more fun to play in; it's about empowering Prunella to fight back.

I think your concern about Prunella & Mak Genggang being read as bloodthirsty is related to that; they need to have quite a bit of force and power to be able to resist the machinery of English imperialism, because Cho hasn't hand-waved it away (though Mak Genggang does even the odds quite a bit). (Also the resistance to colonialism all over the globe was fiercer and bloodier than victor-authored accounts allow.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Standback:

I wonder how much of the difference in our reactions to the book had to do with recognizing not only the genre that Cho was working within when she shifted from JS&MN-esque Regency fantasy, but the specific work of romance she was riffing off (at least, I'm assuming from what you've written that you didn't have the same recognition). It's not so much that I disagree with your criticisms of the later parts of the book, but I think it was easier for me to accept those problems because I saw them not as Cho losing the thread of her story, but more as her shifting from one type of story to the other. As I say in the review, I don't think those two stories work well together, but the book still felt as if it were under Cho's control, which it didn't to you.

I think I probably should have said more about The Exchange in the review, but as I commented to Daniel, I think we are meant to take it as a metaphor for slavery and colonialism, and its corrosive effect on the people who enact it. You're not wrong that it's hard to sympathize with Zacharias's predicament at the end of the book - especially given how passive he is throughout the story, to discover that the one decisive act he's ever taken is to damn himself for no reason at all makes it very hard not to just wash your hands of him entirely - but again I think if you read The Exchange as a metaphor the argument that Zacharias deserves sympathy makes sense. He's spent his life taking in poison, and the choice to undertake The Exchange in order to save someone who had already damned themselves is the outcome of how perverted his worldview has been - and thus all the more damaging to him, because he doesn't get to "enjoy" the fruits of slavery in the same way that white men do. I can see making the argument that he deserves to be saved from that system a great deal more than Sir Stephen.

If anything in this thread is of interest to me, it's how little regard the magicians and sorcerers of England must have for their own souls, for this to be an obvious, unquestioned, and never-spoken-of price any sorcerer needs pay for his much-admired power.

Indeed, but then, actual slave-owners also believed in the immortal soul and eternal damnation, and still did things that, by their own value system, they should have realized would surely damn them. The magicians in Sorcerer to the Crown have more concrete proof of that damnation than people in the real world do, but on the other hand they were also being offered more direct, tangible power.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

zahrawithaz:

it feels like judging Zacharias for not succeeding when the forces of history are arrayed against him, or condemning the victims of slavery and racism for not resisting in the right way

This very much. There are several scenes where Prunella simply sweeps through racism that Zacharias has either been struggling against, or simply takes for granted, that were clearly meant to be comedic, but which to me felt like an implicit criticism of Zacharias. And to a certain extent I think the book is critical of him - as I just said to Standback, it's really hard to sympathize with his choice to take on The Exchange - but there's a fine line between criticizing someone for taking down the precepts of an abusive system, and ignoring the role of that system in warping their worldview, and I'm not sure that Sorcerer always comes down on the right side of that line.

You're right about the importance of Prunella's Indian-ness (I think an earlier draft of the review noted it, but it ended up being cut). That's related, I think, to my observation that Prunella's social climbing is more acceptable to English society than Zacharias earning his position and authority, because there's already a template in place for English gentlemen having children with "native" women and introducing those children to society.

But the end result of that is the erasure of racism, colonization, and other misdeeds by people with power and privilege (not to mention world-building that quickly becomes nonsensical).

I think that's an inevitable problem of not only introducing magic to your world - that is, imbuing specific individuals with tremendous power - but of working within a genre that prioritizes the individual and exaggerates their ability to affect their world. Within that setting and genre, you don't really have a justification for not having your characters try to resolve things like racism, sexism, etc., even though the result can often feel unsatisfying, and like the erasure of real-world injustice.

Though not exactly the same setting, I thought Felix Gilman's Half-Made World books did a good job of avoiding this pitfall. They circle around the heroic genre, but ultimately conclude that even the most powerful characters within them are only pawns in a game too vast for any of them to fully influence. Their happy ending comes from carving out a measure of peace and stability, not remaking the world. (There are, obviously, other problems with the HMW world books, chiefly how they handle the analogue for Native Americans in their magical world, which I've written about elsewhere.)

Standback said...

I wonder how much of the difference in our reactions to the book had to do with recognizing not only the genre that Cho was working within when she shifted from JS&MN-esque Regency fantasy, but the specific work of romance she was riffing off.

You're correct that I didn't recognize it, but I feel like this is less a matter of recognition than it is a matter of appreciation. I'm having trouble understanding what the value of shifting to a Heyer-esque romance is. Is that just the type of the book; is this a book which will be enjoyed primarily by the same people who would enjoy Heyer's romances? Or is there some point, some depth to shifting into the comic romance which I'm just not seeing?

I can fully agree that Cho meant to take the book in that direction; I'm just really not seeing what it is I'm supposed to be getting out of that choice.

(Re: The Exchange - I'm much less inclined to regard the Exchange as significant metaphor, and more to take it at face value and as a convenient plot device. What stuck with me was how through the whole book it was bandied about as The Great Big Secret, as Zacharias's mysterious Condition, as The Great Big Reason that females can never do magic even though nobody talks about it or even hints at what on earth it may be. And then finally we find out what it is at the very end for Prunella to come in and triumph over.

I'd be open to persuasion here, but at present I feel like its presence as a plot device was much stronger than its presence on any thematic level. Certainly if it was meant as metaphor, I don't feel like it made itself felt much.)

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