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.
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.