The Heart Is a Small, Angry Child
Rose Lerner’s “All of Nothing” is a novella which first appeared in the anthology Gambled Away, romance stories about bets and gambling.
Magdalena de Silva is a hostess in a gambling den, which she runs alongside her friend-with-benefits. She’s glamorous and disreputable, in the way of the demi-monde that runs parallel with high society, interdependent but aloof. Beautiful, self-assured, and un-self-consciously frank about her desires. Simon Radcliffe-Gould, a thoroughly English gentleman, is at once enchanted and intimidated by her. Too intimidated to approach, he admires her from afar. Even as it requires losing endless card games and gambling money he can’t spare, he stays close enough to her to feed the fantasies painted by his imagination, which he can’t muster the confidence to act on.
Simon needs to be pushed to act, and Maggie prefers to act by proxy. After lusting after him from a distance and waiting for him to take the initiative, she contrives to invite him into the elaborate role-play between herself and her partner, Meyer. Meyer challenges Simon to a game of chance, with Maggie’s company as the stakes. The slight deception, ostensibly obvious to everyone in the establishment except Simon, provides the impetus that puts the two of them in close proximity for two weeks. Simon’s discomfort with the game, once it’s laid bare to him, provides the first hurdle their relationship must pass.
Although he’s attracted to her from the start, and Maggie has no qualms about making her desires known, Simon’s character and personal history fix him as his own obstacle. He’s not precisely weak-willed, but he is easy to manipulate, and suffers from his inability to maintain healthy boundaries. Maggie’s strongest tie is to her friend, lover, and partner, Meyer. Simon has a parallel tie to his school friend Clement, a former lover with lingering feelings, whom he never knew how to refuse. As befits a story that begins in a gambling house, the first step in Simon and Maggie’s relationship is a negotiation: Simon is invited to the house of his former lover, and he wants Maggie’s presence to use as a buffer, to give him an excuse to turn down Clement’s advances.
In this book, the plot, theme, and characters click together in a way that’s not fully apparent until you’ve processed the story, start to finish. Maggie, who spends her nights taking bets from tipsy gamblers, has a skill at negotiation that Simon lacks. Her ability to differentiate between a feigned and an honest reaction is honed by her years of playing consent games in the submissive role, affecting to be bartered to strangers by her indifferent lover, when really the marks were chosen by her, to please her. She tries to impart some of her skill to Simon, whose friendship with Clement is on the verge of collapse after years of awkward dishonesty and encroaching resentment. Meanwhile Maggie herself has to confront the unpleasant truths she’s shunted to the back of her mind, when her separation from Meyer threatens her conception of self.
The intertwining of the three relationship arcs — Maggie and Simon, Simon and Clement, and Maggie and Meyer — is the book’s strongest feature. Both protagonists are flawed characters, Simon in a way that’s obvious and upfront, and Maggie in a subtler way, which she conceals from both the reader and herself, and struggles to come to terms with. They complement each other, again in differing ways. While Maggie imparts her lessons on boundaries and negotiation to Simon in the most open and honest manner, she derives from him in return a kind of quiet certainty in the sense of self, more through osmosis than overt instruction.
All of this doesn’t begin to touch of the many other facets of interest in the book. Part of Magdalena’s struggle hinges on her flawed and vulnerable concept of self, which traces partially back to her being a Portuguese Jew, and the granddaughter of forced converts. She’s proud and determined to be open about her Judaism, even in the face of unkind treatment from Clement’s house guests. At the same time, her Jewish identity is raw and vulnerable, inexpertly reclaimed in solitude and filled with self-doubt. She pays a heavy price for the violence visited on her ancestors, the scars of which are evidenced in her yearning for both family and community, and the casual acceptance they imply.
Maggie and Simon quarrel often about both her Judaism and her sexual licentiousness. Simon is well-meaning but ignorant about the first, and deeply conflicted about the second. In a moment of self-awareness he admits he “can be very all or nothing”, shuttled between excess and self-denial and pleased with neither. Like Maggie, his vulnerability is tied to his identity, but in his case it’s implied that the tension is between the straitlaced Anglican rectory he was raised in, and the queer, non-monogamous libertine social circle Clement introduced him to. He dreads being dragged into sex games (slash mind games) that he doesn’t want, but knows he doesn’t really fit with his mother and sisters’ ideas of propriety.
All or Nothing is billed as a romance novella, but the character of the ending has more in common with the HFN or “happily for now” ending I associate with erotica. The ending is distinctly optimistic and relationship-focused, but also pointedly engaged in possibilities rather than certainties. Given the two protagonists’ internal conflicts both have to do with feeling hemmed in by their past decisions and future options, that sense of possibility feels appropriate and even freeing, especially given the relatively short time frame of the plot.
Last but not least, I owe thanks to Corey Alexander for including the book in their blog post, “Fave Jewish Rep in Romances I Read 2018-2019“, which is how I discovered it in the first place.
Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun
“Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun to Beget Works of Great Virtue and Power…
The title went on for another half page.”
The Mystic Marriage is a historical fantasy taking place in the fictional European principality of Alpennia, beginning in the year 1821. Both a romance and an adventure, its primary plot revolves around Antuniet Chazillen, last daughter of an Alpennian noble family that has been disgraced and all but destroyed. Antuniet’s life is bleak and devoid of most comforts and securities she’d been raised to. She’d been a scholar and her access to continuing her studies is severely restricted so, like many young women in her position, she makes a strained living by tutoring more wealthy students. The only bright spot in her life, if it could be termed such, is her single-minded quest to redeem her family’s reputation through the art of alchemy and her discovery, mostly by chance, of a singular alchemical text.
Stay Crazy by Erica Satifka
“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”
Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.
Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?
A Very Serious Meditation on the Sexual Commodification of Drones
The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.
A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.
Adventures with Mermaids
I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.
Zen Cho -Sorcerer to the Crown
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.
Seth Dickinson – The Traitor Baru Cormorant
The 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.
Love Is Turning Towards Danger Instead of Away from It — Naomi Novik’s Uprooted
I actually finished reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over my review, trying to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.
I can tell you that the reviews I’ve read are all positive, and they’re right. This is a very good book, and well worth reading. It has everything that you could want from a novel in that it’s tightly-plotted, full of compelling characters, and the world-building is both creative and coherent. You’d be surprised how rarely that’s true. Written in first person from the heroine’s perspective, Agnieszka has a strong, clear voice that makes itself known from the very first sentence.
Strangely enough, I didn’t give much thought to the book’s title until I was about a third of the way through it. This was a mistake. The name Uprooted encapsulates the heroine’s journey, the backstory of several characters, the mythical underpinnings of the fictional world… I’ve rarely read a book that has a theme so thoroughly and expertly woven into every aspect of it. It’s that theme that I most want to examine in my review.
This is the story of a peasant girl living in a village on the brink of a vast, menacing, mystical forest. the feudal lord of the valley is a magician whose role it is to keep the wood’s malevolent influence at bay. Agnieszka, naturally, gets caught up in this mission when she discovers after much resistance that she’s a naturally gifted witch. The first portion of the book recounts the struggle between Agnieszka and the Dragon as they both attempt to master her magical education. What I love about it is that it contrasts the Dragon’s academic style of magic, of the sort that I’ve become accustomed to as a reader of modern fantasy, with his student’s more haphazard, intuitive style, more evocative of old fairy tales and folklore.
But the major conflict between them is over the ties that Agnieszka has to her village and her people. The magician lives alone in his magical tower, he’s rude and short-tempered and isolated, partly because of his magic and his preternatural longevity, but mostly by choice. Although the discovery of her magic puts Agnieszka on a similar route, it’s a road she refuses to follow. She passes the inspection by the council of wizards, but she insists on keeping her name, rather than allowing them to give her a magician’s title.
These two conflicts also manage to become interwoven. Like a good fantasy protagonist, Agnieszka insists on doing everything that’s she’s been told is impossible, and succeeds at it. That is at the root (pardon) of every mythical hero, not just the ability but the irresistible pull towards doing the impossible. She saves people who are supposed to be beyond hope, takes on challenges that ought to kill her, and antagonizes figures of power in a repeated — and highly satisfying — way. To become a magician she has to give up her home and her personal ties, so she becomes a hedgewitch instead.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that by the end of the novel, Agnieszka has failed to become an ivory tower magician, living for centuries detached from the people around her, including her own far-removed descendants. What’s more interesting to me is that her powerful capacity for attachment, which is both personal and mystical, is both the engine of the plot’s central conflict, as well as its resolution. Gradually revealing itself behind even the most innocuous choices, that feeling of connectedness and belonging damns many characters to certain death. As a heroine, Agnieszka succeeds where others fail, not in resisting the pull but in choosing to examine it to its core.
Everyone has struggled with a feeling of belonging. I know I have. That’s part of what makes Uprooted so compelling. It doesn’t gloss over the dark undertones of blind loyalty, whether it’s to a person or to a homeland. As a heroine Agniezska loves her home in the valley, or perhaps she is merely so attached to it that she’s become insensible to its faults. For better or worse, the pull of the valley never lets up, and she never struggles against it. It’s toxic or it’s beautiful, but it can’t be resisted.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.