The Tuesday List: Imperialism, Boo

So this week is that favorite of holidays in the  U.S., Thanksgiving.  I say favorite because, of course, it’s predicated on the successful colonization of the North American Continent by mainly Puritan immigrants from the U.K., and therefore kind of a shitty thing to be celebrating.  Nevertheless, it persists.

In response, I’m going to try to put together a Tuesday List of books in which colonialism and imperialism are critically examined and generally come out the worse for it.  So here goes:

  1. Dominion of the Fallen books – House of Shattered Wings, House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

 

The setting is Paris after a magical war that all but shatters the city, and one of the main characters is a young man brought to France from Vietnam, a victim of former French colonization of Southeast Asia.  Cultures clash in these two books, between the fallen angels of the European religious landscape and the dragons of Southeast Asia and beyond.  These books deal with many topics, from intrigue and trust, to pain and resilience, to the ways in which humans use and exploit each other.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

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Cho’s debut novel deals not only with imperialism, but with race-based slavery, as Zacharias is a former African slave, freed by his mentor when his magical abilities are revealed and held up as a superior example of his race.  On the other hand, Prunella Gentleman is the daughter of a woman of color most likely from Southeast Asia or the Pacific islands, and a white man from Europe.  Prunella’s journey deals with finding her history, while Zacharias’ is about dealing with the past that put him where he is and the present racism that keeps him from doing his job.

3. Imperial Radch series, by Ann Leckie

 

In a far future universe in which humans have solved long distance space travel and invented artificial intelligence, an empire exists whose sole purpose is to concur as many human systems as it can and bring justice, propriety, and benefit to all.  Of course, to do this the Radch must assimilate, force natives to change and accept the rule of a government far away, and above all defend its interests everywhere.  Though there are some benefits to being part of the Radch, such as an end to poverty, the loss of familiar traditions and beliefs, as well as the ways in which newly conquered systems are exploited, are at the heart of the trilogy, and among the motivations for Breq, a former ancillary in a human body who must learn to function now that she is no longer part of the massive AI of her ship.

4. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

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Samatar’s debut novel deals with the conflicting vicissitudes of imperialism, beginning with the story of Jevick, son of a rich pepper merchant on the Tea Islands.  Jevick’s life, by colonial standards, is good, as he has access to wealth and learning, as long as he plays by rules laid out long before he was born.  But when Jevick desires to move beyond the small scope of his home islands, he learns that all the education and goodwill in the world can’t protect him from xenophobia and exploitation by powerful forces on the Olondrian mainland.  Jevick must learn to see through the glamour of knowledge and power and make his own decisions.

5. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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My favorite part of this novel is the steampunk workers’ revolt, where Maia, the half-goblin child of the dead emperor, finds out that the reason he ascended the throne was because a group of engineers tried to blow up the entire royal family and Maia just happened not to be on the air ship.  This novel is a well-written fantasy of manners about an outsider, half-goblin half-elf, trying to learn how to be the ruler of an empire of elves.  There’s plenty more going on, though, to make you want it to be part of a series.

 

 

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Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

England’s
magic is failing.  Every
thaumaturge in London knows whom to blame, but no one has an answer for
England’s magical woes.  Set during
the time of Napolean and England’s rapid colonial expansion, Sorcerer to the Crown takes on
imperialism, nationalism, and the fantasy genre itself with a humorous and warm
first installment in Cho’s new Sorcerer Royal series.

Prunella
Gentleman is a young woman raised at a school for gentlewitches, where young
ladies are taught not to use their magical abilities.  Zacharias Wythe is the newest Sorcerer Royal, a young man
still, and fighting to overcome the obstacle of his irregular ascension to the
title.  Both have secrets to keep;
some secrets, even Prunella and Zacharias themselves don’t fully realize.  They are, after all, magicians.  Zacharias is trying to find the source
of England’s lack of magic, defending himself from other thaumaturges who
believe he is the cause; orphan Prunella is trying to make her way in the world
while learning more about her past.

Part
romance, part fairy story, part novel of intrigue, Sorcerer to the Crown is a galloping ride across England’s storied
countryside, deflating plot devices and tropes just as fast as Prunella can
slap down a hex thrown by an angry mer-creature.  Cho breathes energetic and vivid life into all her
characters, while her narrator reminds one of the conversational early novel
tone of the eighteenth-century, handily dropping the reader into setting and
scene, leaving the reader free to enjoy Cho’s take on fantasy and fairy. 

Fairyland comes off both
better and worse than many a tale that treats fairy with proper dread and
awe.  Reminiscent of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and echoing
the irreverence of Monty Python and the
Holy Grail
, Cho’s story delights in the vast imagination that created fairy
stories in the first place, while using Fairyland as a useful foil against
which to explore our own notions of foreignness and, indeed, Otherness.  Sorcerer
to the Crown
is a story about the other.  And while Cho lets readers float along happily without
enumerating every point of magical logic and lore, as some authors will do, she
does not let the reader off easy when it comes to considering the humanity of
her characters, not least because her characters will always demand it for
themselves.

Readers who enjoy fairy
stories that don’t take themselves too seriously will love the way Cho throws
everything together with a dash of irreverence and a whole lot of panache.  Prunella is the sorceress inside every
reader, a more confident Hermione, a more calculating Katniss, reminiscent of
another Cat—Cat Barahal of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series—and never ready
to give up.  Cho is obviously
familiar with Austen and the Bronte’s, and readers who enjoy period language
and manners will feel right at home with Sorcerer
to the Crown.