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Zen Cho -Sorcerer to the Crown

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I read Sorcerer to the Crown, beginning to end, in under three days. Not a usual occurrence for me, not since my high school years. There’s a particular joy to be had in devouring a book and not being able to set it down, and this is exactly the sort of book you want for this type of adventure. Light without being frothy, romantic without being cloying, and effortlessly funny. My favorite stories are the ones that have well-balanced measures of comedy, drama and action. It’s a pretty difficult trick, but I think this book manages it remarkably.

The most obvious draw of Sorcerer to the Crown is the two protagonists. Zacharias Wythe, the eponymous sorcerer, is cautious, withdrawn, abstract-minded and secretive. As the child of African slaves adopted by an English gentleman and raised to become the first black magician in England, he has better reason than most to be reserved, not to say insecure. Prunella Gentleman is a plucky orphan living in a girls’ school under the sufferance of a family friend, but instead of being filled with gentle forbearance, she is as pragmatically ambitious a heroine as I might want. The contrast between the two starts paying off almost as soon as they meet.

Prunella is a woman who knows how to work the system. She wants her independence, but independence means cash and she is not above acknowledging that the most realistic way for a pretty girl to come into a fortune is to marry well. Zacharias is almost as confined as she is by the walls of convention and expectation that box him in on every side, but of a naturally ideologic temperament. His foster-parents, alive and dead both, struggle to deal with this very impractical tendency of their son. Zacharias is a man who can ill-afford lofty ideas of social change, but for all his soft-spoken civility, he as just as stubborn as a protagonist is expected to be.

And so, the Sorcerer to the Crown takes it upon himself to champion the cause of women’s education — magical education, naturally. By the cosmic forces of narrative coincidence, his first meeting with Prunella convinces him that suppressing women’s magic is a great evil. She has natural talent and is remarkably competent, which would seem to make her an ideal candidate for his apprentice. Prunella, though, is not very academically inclined. Still, she doesn’t scruple to pretend a passion for magical research to draw Zacharias into the thick of her machinations.

Meanwhile the plot rages on, pitting Zacharias against his colleagues in a fight for his position and his life. The admixture of politics and magic feels natural and compelling, as the poor beleaguered Sorcerer Royal must contend with diplomatic crises involving foreign witches, while simultaneously negotiating the relations between humans and fairies that ensure England’s access to magical energies. He seems set up to fail from every quarter, and all the while he runs afoul of his artful young student. Superficially it seems that he and Prunella are at cross-purposes, but this is an unusually compelling variation on a clash of personalities that tapers into attraction and genuine, mutual respect.

It is a feat of sheer magic to get me to read a book cover to cover without once resenting the inevitable romantic subplot. I found Zacharias and Prunella’s non-flirtations charming throughout the story. Never did I feel that they weighted the narrative or slowed it down. Their relationship progressed organically and I found its conclusion immensely satisfying, instead of grudgingly accepting it the way I ordinarily would. Even Zacharias’s evasively-worded confession was more endearing than irritating. I especially enjoyed Prunella’s utter confidence in her own powers of attraction. By contrast, Zacharias was as comically unaware of his own appeal as the most flagrant Mary Sue. It’s this kind of subtle twist that makes the book consistently funny and surprising.

Sorcerer to the Crown came highly recommended to me (from various sources), but I can honestly say that it exceeded my expectations. An instant classic, and one that I’m certain I’ll want to reread on a regular basis.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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Seth Dickinson – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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TTBC1_Cover1-680x1024The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a secondary world fantasy novel, taking place in an unmagical world dominated by a sprawling colonial empire.

Baru Cormorant is a brilliant native child, taken from her family by the Empire of Masks in order to be raised in a residential school on Imperial values. Her voracious mind devours everything they teach her, mathematics and astronomy at the price of doctrine and propaganda. The ruling principle of the Masquerade is “social hygiene”, an all-consuming style of eugenics that deplores sexual deviancy and obsesses over optimizing the mixture of racial traits. A reader might be jarred into attention by the absence of racial supremacy as they’ve come to expect it, replaced by a creepy pseudo-scientific fetish for “hybrid vigor” as it’s sometimes called.

The opportunities presented by a Masquerade education are irresistible to young Baru. She is nurtured by a patron who recognizes her curiosity and keen intellect, who pushes her to excel and distance herself from her family and her roots. This sets Baru on an ambitious course, to become an Imperial bureaucrat and learn the secrets of power that brought low her homeland and split up her family. She is defined as much by this ambition as by her cool, calculating nature and inordinately long view of the future.

One of the most charming and fascinating things about Baru and the Imperial Republic respectively, is the centrality of economics in their relationship. Baru gains her mentor’s attention when she comments on his commerce practices: he buys in Imperial paper notes, but sells only for gold. This is her introduction to the Empire’s most potent strategy of colonization, and presages her future position as an Imperial accountant. The centrality of economics to Imperial reign makes this a position of great power, and Baru’s natural intellectual talents make her ideally suited to it.

The title of the book (just The Traitor in the UK release) is not an idle threat. Baru is a character filled with contradictions and the most important of these is how far she is willing to go in service of her goal, to protect her homeland and her family from the Masquerade. Loyalty, in the world of the Masquerade, leads inevitably to treachery. The narrative is not at all forgiving on this point. Baru’s goals may be just and true and even noble, but they are in no way pure, and their goodness can in no way protect her from the consequences of her actions.

Baru’s treacheries span the book’s entire character arc and are directed every which way. There is no one in her life, including herself, that does not in some way suffer from her deception. The daughter of a mother and two fathers, and herself a “latent tribadist”, she still chooses to function under the Masquerade’s system of “social hygiene”, with the full knowledge of the gruesome interrogation techniques and punishments devised to enforce it. She lies to herself throughout, in the inevitable tension between her distant goals and her immediate actions, and in evading the many spies set on her by many political interests. The Masquerade, she helpfully explains at one point, is a “cryptarchy”, the rule of secrets.

Read this book. It’s clever and touching and suspenseful, and the ending left me craving more. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book and got so exactly what I was expecting, and what I wanted. Bright and cold and calculating, Baru is exactly the kind of female protagonist I am always looking for.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

Writing Goals: Looking Forward to 2016

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And so, 2015 is over. It’s been an interesting year. I’m not certain whether I can comfortably look back on 2015, but I feel confident in saying that I look forward to 2016, and that’s no mean feat. My writing goals for the past seven months have mainly been “write!” and so it’s difficult for me to assess how well I’ve met them. I accepted some new challenges and took some new risks.

Here are a few things I am happy about, this year-end:

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2015 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 370 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is the Story it Needs to Be

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Last Saturday I watched The Force Awakens. This is the Star Wars film that was supposed to wash away the bad taste left over from the prequel trilogy. Between the reviews I’ve seen and my brother’s reaction, it seems to have achieved that quite well. Which means that when you walk into the theater to watch this movie, you know exactly what to expect. And that’s a good thing.

Spoilers from here on. Proceed with discretion.

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Every Hero Needs a Villain (Not a Supergirl Review)

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Poor Supergirl. She never can seem to settle on a proper supporting cast of her very own. Sure, all comics superheroes go through endless permutations — power changes, costume changes, forgettable one-off villains — but always there is some sort of baseline to come back to. Always there is at least a mentor, or best friend, or love interest that recurs in every incarnation. And always, always a nemesis. A hero that doesn’t manage to establish a proper rogues gallery is bound to falter.

Supergirl, in her capacity as a spin-off hero, has a tendency to inherit Superman’s cast-offs. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, characters can grow and change and develop new roles in the mythology, when discharged from their role as third-tier Superman hangers-on. A few years ago, pre-New 52 when I was still following the ongoing Supergirl title, this was done to moderately good effect with Lana Lang. As an ex-love interest, the Superman comics didn’t really have room for her. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on the connection between them, and why Lana would specifically seek Kara out.

Other characters from that run stuck better, it seems. The Supergirl TV show has a couple of original supporting cast, but is replete with third-tier Superman characters, as well as ambiguous Checkmate-aligned Maxwell Lord. Side note: having Maxwell Lord in Supergirl and then notcrossing over with Legends of Tomorrow would be a crying shame. Still, it seems like the creators of the show are intent on keeping Kara firmly connected to the Superman mythos, while situating her in her own hometown with her own concerns.

I’m glad to see Kara getting a robust TV presence, even if the themes are lightweight and the dialogue is clunky. Granted, my enjoyment of the show — or any contemporary Supergirl comics — will always be capped by my own unnecessarily specific ideas for exactly what Supergirl should be. Of course, that point is largely moot, since the most recent iteration of Kara Zor-El had her ongoing title cancelled some time last spring. Not that I’m terribly worried, DC has the good sense to make sure that they have something on the shelves ready for fans of the show to pick up. Probably.

But the depth-problem is that each new volume (the most recent being the sixth) will have its own set of writers and artists sweeping in to “redefine” the character, without anyone having any idea of what exists at her core. Except me, obviously. All that means is that different iterations will have wildly different approaches. Of course, most comics superheroes go through this, but when Superman starts wearing T-shirts and punching people, everybody and their cryo-frozen cousin has an opinion on whether or not this is the “real” Superman.

The core of the problem, I think, is that very few Supergirl writers seem to have started out as readers. The TV show, curiously, might finally be an exception to this. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s at least one person in that writers’ room that read and enjoyed the Sterling Gates run — my own favorite, incidentally. Despite many flaws. Ultimately, comics continuity and the snarls that come with it are part and parcel of forming a superhero mythos, and they need to be formed out of an amalgam of more than one writer’s ideas about who Kara Zor-El really is.

The core idea behind the TV show, aside from Supergirl’s ongoing efforts to achieve an independent reputation, seems to be that Kara, unlike Clark, actually remembers Krypton. This, I think, is a good start. How it progresses remains to be seen.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

How to Get Away with Characters Making Terrible Decisions

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The best thing about How to Get Away with Murder is Viola Davis.(1) The second best thing about HTGAWM is that it is a show about smart people making stupid decisions. I might have mentioned this is one of my favorite characterization themes. Annalise is brilliant from the start, shown to be both creative and ruthless in her problem solving abilities. She habitually takes the most difficult cases and prides herself on being able to turn around desperate situations.

In keeping with the traditional characterization, her emotional intelligence is commensurately low. When it comes to her personal life, she consistently makes poor decisions, which are then followed by increasingly messy consequences. The downwards spiral of snap decisions leading to spit-and-bubblegum solutions has defined the first half of the second season… even more than the first season, I think. She is a character designed to respond well in a crisis, and the first season mostly showcased her as such.

Last season, Annalise served as a shadow mentor and protector to her students, and her responses to their actions were alarming, but considered. And ultimately effective. The finale reveal showing Rebecca’s fate was actually the first hint that in this second season, Annalise’s direct, immediate decision-making style would increasingly backfire and lead her (and her students) deeper into trouble.

Instead of making cold, calculated choices and paying a personal price for them, she makes dubious gut-directed choices which are doomed to fail. A ruthless choice is coming up with a plan to frame her lover for her husband’s murder. It threw her personal life into chaos, but achieved its intended purpose — diverting suspicion from the people actually responsible for his death. Season two Annalise skips over the ruthless to the outrageously stupid, as the mid-season finale shows her instructing her student to shoot her.

There’s no question that Annalise Keating is meant to be seen as a smart character. She’s a highly successful lawyer and law professor. She has an impressive education and an illustrious career. Within the confines of the show’s sensationalistic reality, she is shown to dominate the courts she argues in and continually sways people to her opinion, even against their better judgment. Her force of personality inspires intense loyalty from her subordinates. Now, midway through the second season, all her strengths have turned to weaknesses, until even that inspired devotion can be turned into equally intense hate.

It’s painful but fascinating to watch. Annalise is a living, breathing trainwreck of a woman. Watching her life fall apart around her, in consequence of her own increasingly erratic actions, it’s hard to know whether to root for or against her. Or just sit back and watch the disaster unfold.

(1) I may have teared up just a little when I found out she would be playing the incomparable Amanda Waller for DC’s Suicide Squad movie.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth