Sorcerer to the Crown

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho, 2015

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

Premise: Prunella Gentleman has always been skilled in magic, but teaching young ladies to do advanced thaumaturgy is simply not done. Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe has his own problems to deal with, as there is a problem with England’s magic and none of the (white) magicians believe that he can solve it.

I felt a bit like I was cheating on the Read Harder Challenge once I started to read this. A historical fantasy set in England isn’t exactly stretching out of my comfort zone. However, author Zen Cho is writing from her experience, as a Malaysian-born woman who currently lives in England.

The main characters, Prunella and Zacharias, are potentially powerful in different ways, and they both navigate the line of walking in upper-class circles while being of obviously non-white heritage in Regency London.

Zacharias is African; he was purchased, freed, and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal. Prunella’s father was British, but her mother, who she never knew, was Indian. Her heritage is key to her story, and her attitude and determination are the best part of the book.

The book fits easily in the best modern tradition of historical fiction that doesn’t sugarcoat its history while allowing its characters to conceive of and reach for something better.

I liked how much of the world of magic was implied rather than spelled out, making this an easy and fast read. The cast of characters, particularly female characters, is happily a large and diverse group of intriguing personalities.

My main criticism might be that although it was a fun story, by the end it all felt a bit like introductory material - just set up for a much bigger and better story to come.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Bell Jar

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

Premise: Esther seems to have everything: talent, ambition, a prestigious summer internship in New York. But her brain is a jerk, as we might say today, and will drag her down.

Similar to Wintergirls, this is a book I recommend, but with reservations. I knew it was about depression, and realized quickly that it is a lightly fictionalized story of Plath’s own experiences with mental health treatment.

I knew The Bell Jar is highly regarded. I didn’t know how vivid, evocative, and painful a picture of depression it paints. I felt like I was walking in a fog for hours after I finished it.

It’s not just about severe clinical depression, but that particularly female intertwining of internal malaise with experiences of systemic and personal sexism. It’s no coincidence that The Bell Jar was first published the same year as The Feminine Mystique.

The combination of self-doubt, contradictory cultural messages, impossible choices, harassment, and mistreatment that many women are still more than passing familiar with doesn’t cause depression, but it doesn’t exactly help.

In that sense, Esther’s story is both universal and specific. Specific in the detailed pictures it draws: the publishing world in New York in a particular era, the experience of residential asylums in the same era, Esther’s personal downward spiral and impetus toward self-harm. Universal in that you easily feel why her depression seems logical to her, why she can’t see any way up from where she is, why she makes the choices she does.

The prose is masterful and moving, and it is for just that reason that today I give this book a big warning sticker. Know yourself, my fellow readers. Know whether you are likely to come through a story like this (knowing that Esther does make it out in the end, though Plath eventually didn’t) feeling empathetic to others, reassured in the reality of the descriptions, or shaken by how much of yourself you can see on the page.

5 Stars - Extremely Effective

Speaker for the Dead

Monday, May 16, 2016

Speaker for the Dead
Orson Scott Card, 1986

Hugo Winner - 1987

Premise: Follows Ender’s Game. Ender and Valentine have traveled the galaxy, time has passed, and now no one knows their connection to history. But a new colony has begun on a planet with an unknown intelligent species, and tragedy will draw Ender there to meet them.

Many celebrated authors have won more than one Hugo Award. But to date, the only other person to win the Best Novel award twice back-to-back is Lois McMaster Bujold (whose work I adore completely).

I addressed in my review of Ender’s Game the difficulty in returning to these books now, in 2016. It gets even harder here.

Because I loved this book.

I think it’s much better than Ender’s Game, although it needs that story as its prequel. It touches on more interesting issues, such as the nature of sentience, understanding across seemingly impossible barriers,and the individual perception of time and how it affects how beings relate to each other.

There is still a lack of imagination shown in how little aspects of human society have changed in thousands of years. To be fair, though, in 1986 it seemed a lot more likely that the Catholic Church could proceed unmoved for a few dozen more centuries. Also, a piece of the plot revolves on the fact that at least in this colony, married couples legally have no private files from each other, not even for work. (It’s framed in a more sexist way than it would actually work out, which is unfortunate.) It just made me think: wow, that is a) terrible for cybersecurity and employment, and b) terrible for people in bad relationships. A bad idea all around, but one that I’ll accept in the (half-closed-minded and handicapped by religion) future society as presented.

The exploration of time and perception almost goes unnoticed under the more overt struggle, but it’s intriguing and delicately done. The questions about alien morality and how humans should respond to sentient species are extremely well done. (Note, though: nothing groundbreaking, see The Snow Queen, Startide Rising and original Star Trek, among other things.)

I found the story moving, even though I find it more heartbreaking that the author has often seemed unable to apply in real life the morals in his fiction about compassion and understanding towards those who are different from you.

5 Conflicted but Honest Stars

Further Reading:

Lumberjanes: Volume Three: A Terrible Plan

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lumberjanes: Volume Three: A Terrible Plan
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Carolyn Nowak, Maarta Laiho, et. al., 2016

Premise: Follows Friendship to the Max. Collects Lumberjanes #9-12. The major mystery of the summer is solved, so the girls get down to the real business of camp: telling scary stories, earning merit badges, and...getting trapped in alternate dimensions?

This volume is plenty of fun, although it feels like a breather after the climax of issue #8. Regular series artist Brooke Allen must have had other projects, as 10-12 are drawn by a new team, and 9 has a whole passel of guest artists.

Issue 9 finds the girls telling scary stories. Each story is done in a different style, and both the story and the style each say something about the teller. I think the art for the framing panels is a smidge feminine for Lumberjanes, but this is a solid, enjoyable issue.

Issues 10-12 follow two plots over the course of one day: Jo, April and Ripley try to earn a bunch of merit badges now that they have a free day and no supernatural forces are after them, and Molly and Mal go on a private picnic. The merit badge plot is mostly humor, but fleshes out the camp at large much more than we’ve gotten to this point. The picnic naturally turns into a dangerous adventure involving dinosaurs, plant monsters, and dimensional travel. Molly and Mal do get a bit of time in between running and plotting to talk about their homes and how much they like each other, which is a-freaking-dorable.

This is another strong entry in the series, although I miss Allen’s art.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

How English Became English

Monday, May 2, 2016

How English Became English
Simon Horobin, 2016

New release! I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Premise: A layman-friendly history of the English language: the roots of its complexity, the source of its foibles, the ways people have sought to define or legislate it, and the ways it is continuing to grow and change.

What a joy for a word-lover like me! This book lays out English in all its glory.

I loved learning about the languages that came together to make Old English and all the reasons that other languages and words were folded in later. It was especially interesting to get examples of how the long-ago mashing together of people and language created specific inconsistencies and quirks that carry through to the modern language.

The book has a humorous, modern tone, which I enjoyed, and the author clearly has little sympathy for prescriptivists who would put the language in a box and freeze “correct” English in place. There’s a good deal of commentary on the history of language authorities. I enjoyed the description of the circular nature of certain important references, i.e. citing Shakespeare’s use of a word to prove the meaning of the word, and then using the citation to prove the importance of Shakespeare to the language.

I would have liked more about emerging dialects and the future of English, although the commentary on the classism inherent in the codification of Standard English is well done.

This was a proof copy, so the book is not necessarily final, but the ending was a bit jarring, just sort of: “Well, and that’s a list of all the things about the history of English you should know.”

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book