Tag: Zen Cho

Top 10 Reads 2022

Happy New Year, everyone! Normally I like to get my top reads posted before the end of December but this year–for the first time since the pandemic began–I had a busy holiday travel schedule and just didn’t get to it amidst all the festivities. I’m also mixing it up a bit from past years, and posting a combined fiction and non-fiction list since my reading leaned heavily towards fiction this year. Without further ado, these are my favourite books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2022.

Babel

Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. 

When his family dies of cholera in 1820s Canton, a boy whose birth name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. The boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve. Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility.

Note: Babel is published by HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. Please note that the HarperCollins Union has been on strike since 11/10/22 to get a fair contract for their workers. Visit the HarperCollins Union linktree to learn how you can support their fight for a fair contract. The union has NOT asked for a boycott on purchasing HarperCollins titles at this time.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business and she has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her resolve it. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly. Black Water Sister is a standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himwari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo

This is the first in a series of novellas that will follow the non-binary cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who opted to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: FictionNovellaFantasyLGBTQIA+

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malinda Lo

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily finds the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values your family and community taught you to hold dear. But at the core it is a story of first love in the face of adversity.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic NovelLGBTQIA+

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful overseas market is China, with its large population and growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel chronicles the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Categories: Non-Fiction

She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery where Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

At the time I wrote my initial review back in May, the sequel had no confirmed title or release date, but He Who Drowned the World is now due for a August 2023 debut!

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland

Prince Kadou has no interest in the throne; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is freshly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break-in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch

Cover image for This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

by Tabitha Carvan

Australian author Tabitha Carvan’s memoir, which I read twice in 2022, is subtitled The Joy of Loving Something–Anything–Like Your Life Depends on it. And that in a nutshell is what the book is actually about; the theft of joy, and how we can counteract it by refusing to be ashamed of the things that make us happy. Yes, even if that thing is a celebrity crush on British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Carvan is the stay-at-home mom of two young kids in Canberra, Australia, when she finds herself unexpectedly seized by Cumbermania. This new obsession was special not in and of itself, but because it roused Carvan from the “stultification of early motherhood” and forced her to examine the ways society encourages adults–but particularly women and mothers–to give up joy and hobbies and fun. Author Gretchen Rubin has described enthusiasm “a form of social courage. It’s often safer to criticize than to praise; it can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical. Enthusiasm is more fun, however. It’s brave, generous, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and a bit goofy.” Carvan’s memoir examines this social courage, and the social and emotional benefits we can reap from unabashed enthusiasm

Categories: Non-Fiction, Memoir

That’s it for me! What were some of your favourite reads in 2022?

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fantasy

Fantasy is easily one of the largest categories on my site, with over 125 posts. So when it came time to make a list of some of my favourite books from the past decade, it’s no surprise that there were a lot! Here are five of the best. In the interest of avoiding duplication, I didn’t include anything that made the Best Fiction list from earlier this week, or that will be on tomorrow’s Best YA list.

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9781250099082

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory. Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore that showcases a deep love of the genre, and is able to incorporate many different traditions. Originally published in 2016, Certain Dark Things briefly went out of print, but it is now available again in paperback!

The City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

by S.A. Chakraborty

ISBN 9780062678102

Despite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of City of Brass is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. Happily this trilogy is now complete, plus a book of short stories that came out this fall, so you won’t have to wait impatiently for the sequels!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

by Neil Gaiman

ISBN 9780062280220

A man returns to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the reception he finds himself exploring the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn down the old flint lane to the Hempstock farm, a property and a family so old they are listed in the Domesday Book. Sitting by the duck pond, he remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who called the pond her ocean. But he also suddenly remembers other darker, more impossible things, things that cannot possibly be true. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. Magic is rife in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but explanations are sparse and, for me at least, would only spoil the sense that children know but adults have forgotten. This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.” If you were ever a bookish child, and if you’re an adult who still loves tales of unbelievable magic, you don’t want to hear any more about this book. You want to go read it.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780425283370

Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England. Since first reading Sorcerer to the Crown in 2016, I’ve been constantly recommending it to fans of Jane Austen and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as following Cho’s other works.

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

by Erin Morgenstern

ISBN 978038554123

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Yet here it is, recorded in a book whose publication clearly predates his birth. And if his real story is recorded in Sweet Sorrows, is he to assume that the other stories, of pirates and bees, guardians and rabbits, owls and acolytes are true as well? And what then was recorded on the missing pages that have been torn from the book?  The Starless Sea is a story that is less about individual people than it is about our collective propensity for storytelling, and our need to make meaning, and myth, and symbol into impossibly overlapping confections without beginning or end. It is about our love affair with the concept of Fate, and our fear that it might be real, and the way we both cling to it, and lash out against it. If you love stories more than you love breathing, this is the book for you.

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780451487995

“Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side. But you had to die before you could be reborn.”

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business with a local gangster turned real estate developer who plans to tear down the god’s temple to build a condominium tower. She has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her get her revenge on the developer and save the temple. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly.

The story begins with the family returning to Malaysia, and Jess’s time in America quickly begins to feel like a different life. Although Jess is in a long-distance relationship, we do not learn much about her time with her girlfriend. Soon, she begins “to feel like she’d made Sharanya up, like she’d never had a girlfriend at all.” This serves to characterize how all-consuming Jess’s situation in Penang has become, but it also leaves the reader with minimal investment in the relationship when Jess’s erratic behaviour begins to cause some strain between them. Sharanya feels even less real to the reader than she does to Jess. Ultimately, however, this is a story that is more about family and history than romance. Jess’s mother has never spoken much about her family, and that silence contains a vast sea of omissions.

Jess has an American brashness about her that quickly gets her into trouble as she tries to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Penang, where bribery and corruption run rampant, and seemingly upstanding businessmen often have dark pasts. Even a simple mechanic can be more than he seems, as Jess discovers when she learns that her mother’s brother is also a spiritual medium, a dangerous and not necessarily lucrative lifestyle. Opposition to the impending condo development lands her uncle first in the hospital and then in jail, and Jess faces multiple beatings and an attempted rape as she becomes more deeply involved in Ah Ma’s vendetta. Through dreams and memories, Jess also shares in the experiences of her grandmother’s hardscrabble life, and the short life and violent death of the woman who would become the blood-thirsty god known as the Black Water Sister.

The standout character of this story is one who is dead before it even begins. Jess’s maternal grandmother Ah Ma has a sharp tongue and a steely core. She is a woman who lived a hard life, and the pragmatism that necessitated has followed her into the afterlife. A little thing like death is not going to keep her from exacting her revenge on Ng Chee Hin or saving the temple from his greed. Ah Ma can also be surprisingly funny. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?” Ah Ma says dismissively when Jess interrogates her about what measure of privacy she can expect when she’s being haunted, and why Ah Ma doesn’t know everything that is going on around them. If you enjoyed characters like Mak Genggang in Cho’s previous work, Sorcerer to the Crown, Ah Ma is cut from similar cloth and has a commanding presence in the story. Powerful, complicated, and determined, she is forced to contend with a granddaughter who has all the same capacities but not necessarily the same priorities.

Black Water Sister is a truly standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission as much as with the gods before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2016

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.

The Hero’s Walk

ISBN 0-345-45092-2

the-heros-walkSripathi Rao and his family live in the once-grand Big House, on Brahmin Street in the seaside Indian town of Toturpuram. His mother Ammayya, his wife Nirmala, and his unmarried sister Putti all reside under his roof, along with his unemployed adult son, Arun. Absent, but never spoken of, is his daughter, Maya, who went away to school in North America, and then defied her family by breaking off her traditional engagement to marry a white man. It has been nine years since Maya’s exile, but still her father stubbornly refuses to take her calls or allow her to visit. But everything changes when a phone call from Canada brings the news that Maya and her husband are dead, leaving their daughter Nandana orphaned. Apart from the initial upset, the events of The Hero’s Walk are mostly quiet and subtle, though the environs are lively and colourful. The tension comes from the interactions of a cast of idiosyncratic and richly drawn characters who inhabit Big House. Anita Rau Badami has crafted a fascinating and complicated family dynamic that is thoroughly disrupted by Nandana’s arrival. The passing of the grudge against Maya with her death will cause Sripathi, and indeed all the Raos, to re-examine their prejudices and preconceptions. One great tragedy leads to many new beginnings.

Categories: Canadian 

Ruin and Rising 

ISBN 978-0-8050-9461-9

Cover image for Ruin and Rising by Leigh BardugoAlthough I’ve singled out Ruin and Rising here, this is honestly a tip of the hat to Leigh Bardugo’s entire Grisha Trilogy, as well as Six of Crows, which is set in the same world. I read all four over the course of the year, and I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom, which completes the Six of Crows duology. The Grisha Trilogy centers on Alina Starkov, a military cartographer who is belatedly discovered to be a sun summoner, a rare type of Grisha who can call and manipulate light. I listened to the audio version of the series, which is excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang, who is also a member of the composite cast for the audio version of Six of Crows. On more than one occasion I found myself sitting in a parking lot, not wanting to turn off my car until I found out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent.  Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series had me hooked from the get-go.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult 

Sorcerer to the Crown 

ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen ChoI read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho as part of the Diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club hosted by Naz at Read Diverse Books. Cho’s tale is set in a magical England during the Napoleonic Wars, and centers on Zacharias Wythe, adopted black son of Sir Stephen Wythe, and the newest Sorcerer Royal following his guardian’s death. Unhappy with his ascension, England’s traditionalist magical families have begun to agitate, blaming Zacharias for England’s long-standing decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. In both writing style and setting, Sorcerer to the Crown is very reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but Cho’s protagonists are vastly different from Clarke’s, and they are the driving force behind the story. Cho also weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, revealing machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction. Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue, and even a dash of romance.

Categories: Fantasy

Station Eleven

ISBN 978-0-3853-5330-4

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelAt a production of King Lear in Toronto, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the early hours of the epidemic. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe. Instead, for the most part, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who are old enough to remember the pre-apocalypse world, and these memories are juxtaposed with the many productions of Shakespeare in the text. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.

Categories: Canadian, Dystopian, Science Fiction

Uprooted

ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi NovikAgnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention. Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale. I also really enjoyed the fact that Naomi Novik continued to centre Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia, even after Agnieszka is taken to the tower. Uprooted also has definite flavours of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone.This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling.

Categories: Fairy Tales, Fantasy

Honestly, this was a hard list to compile. I read around 150 books this year, and a lot of them were excellent. If you love vampires, don’t skip Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Sylvain Neuvel’s sci-fi debut Sleeping Giants is not to be missed. I adored The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, and I am enjoying Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series tremendously. Maybe I needed to do a Top 10 this year?

What were your favourite fiction reads of 2016?

Sorcerer to the Crown

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Choby Zen Cho

ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

“It is shockingly ungallant of men to withhold from us our fair share of magic.”

Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England.

Diverse-SFF-book-clubZen Cho sets Sorcerer to the Crown in a recognizable historical England, during the Napoleonic Wars. However, her England is flavoured with magic, still touched by Faery, however much that magic may have been depleted in recent years. The once powerful society of magicians has lost some of its lustre, and the traditionalist magical families are pining for their glory days. Cho’s prose style also has a decidedly historical flavour. This setting and style are certainly reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it is in her two main characters that Cho reveals the true tack of her story, one that moves in a different direction from Clarke’s tale.

Zacharias is a complicated figure. He had no ambitions of his own to public office, preferring a more retired existence, but his dedication to the wishes of his guardian compels him to take up the Staff of office when Sir Stephen dies. Indeed, this has been the story of much of Zacharias’ life. On a ship in the Caribbean, Sir Stephen recognized Zacharias’ magical talent, and purchased him from the ship’s captain. Zacharias was taken to England, given a gentleman’s upbringing, a first rate magical education, and his emancipation on his thirteenth birthday. He has laboured all his life under a debt of gratitude, supressing complicated feelings about the fact that Sir Stephen did not buy his parents’ freedom from the ship’s captain. Nor did he feel he could disagree with Sir Stephen in life, lest he be perceived as ungrateful. Zacharias is essentially engaged in respectability politics, for “his chief aim had always been that he should be beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation.” We get to see this fraught dynamic unravel, as Zacharias is haunted by Sir Stephen’s ghost, and their relationship after death has none of the boundaries it held in life.

Whereas Zacharias is a cautious and prudent character, always concerned with appearances and reputation, Prunella is much more headstrong and carefree. While Zacharias is retiring, a reluctant politician, Prunella is quite openly ambitious. After being dismissed from a girls’ school where young women of magical talent are taught to supress their abilities, Prunella sets her sights on London, and a marriage that will allow her to make her way in society. When the Sorcerer Royal visits the school to give a lecture, Prunella decides that Zacharias Wythe is her means of escape, and introduction to the society of England’s magical families. She seems quite unaware of his unpopularity, or the barriers their backgrounds may cause. Zacharias is a less challenging character, easier to like, but Prunella pushes the envelope with her assertiveness and naked desire to succeed.

In addition to two nuanced and intriguing primary characters, another great figure in Sorcerer to the Crown is Mak Genggang, an elderly woman from the island of Janda Baik. England has a colonial interest in the island nation, but the Sultan of the tiny country is plagued by magical creatures, and complains of the dangerous power of the island’s magical elders, all women. He comes to England seeking help to supress these women, implicitly threatening to ally with the French if England does not assist him. Determined that the Sultan’s voice will not be the only one heard in England, Mak Genggang follows him abroad. She is living proof that women can be powerful magicians and community leaders. In addition to serving as a female mentor for Prunella, Mak Genggang is also the means by which Cho weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction.

Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue. Even as he tries to solve the problem of England’s decreasing magical atmosphere, Zacharias is fighting off assassination attempts, and struggling to negotiate England’s tricky relationship with the neighbouring realm of Faery. Though Britain’s magical power has decreased, magical artifacts and creatures seem to be lurking everywhere, if you look beneath the surface. There is even a touch of romance at the periphery, though it is certain be more significant to the next two volumes of this planned trilogy, which begins with this well-rounded romp through magical England.

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