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


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


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.



The Tuesday List: Happy Election Day

Hahaha, gotcha.  No, well, actually yes it is election day in the U.S., but more importantly it’s my birthday!  So this week’s Tuesday list will be books that have really impacted me as a reader, or that I have loved, or that have stuck with me.

  1. Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, Vol. 1), Lois McMaster Bujold


This novel (and series) is a good introduction to the the idea that in SFF, a female protagonist doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character.  Fawn is young, inexperience, and running away from home because she’s done something really stupid–but for a good reason, well, not a good reason, but an understandable reason, which is that she’s young and immature and hasn’t been properly educated by the adults in her life.  She’s been let down, but instead of staying and giving in to the tides of culture and society that would force her into marriage with an asshole, she runs away, and learns a lot about herself, and has unexpected and terrifying experiences.  I mean, there’s a happy ending, but there’s a lot in the middle, too.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal, book 1), Zen Cho

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Besides being a wonderfully written novel about two young people from marginalized backgrounds who do extraordinary things, I just love the way this story tweaks the noses of everyone who’s ever made an ignorant comment about diversity for its own sake, or how anything not from the Anglo-centric canon is hard to understand and needs translation, or that women who are good at things are just MarySues.  Prunella Gentleman is capable and funny and doesn’t give a damn about others’ preconceived notions about what she can do or ought to be doing.  Add to that a page-turning plot about fairy kingdoms, intrigue, and secret dragons, and this is a fun, necessary read in the SFF canon.

3. A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar


A lot of what I’ve seen written about this novel call it lyrical, and yes, it is, but the thing I like most about it is how multi-faceted it is.  It’s a dense read, and that’s a good thing, because there’s not only a huge history and unknown world built into the story, but also a lot of commentary about colonialism, about the privilege inherent in education and the ability to gather knowledge, about agency even unto extreme disability and even death.  One of the main characters is a young woman who has died, and yet she is still given the chance to tell her story, to be fragile and terrifying, to be smart and yet naive, to be, essentially, herself.  All of the characters in this novel are treated with such care that, once finished, it’s a hard world to wander your way out of.

4. Frog Music, Emma Donoghue


The complete opposite of Stephen King, who creates a horrific setting that turns out to have some kind of supernatural cause, Emma Donoghue writes the kind of  scenarios that make you wish they had a supernatural cause, because the mundane, human reasons behind them are just too horrific.  (This may not be the case with all her books, but so far it stands up.)  Frog Music is the story of a murder, and it’s the story of two women who are about as different as they can be, and the ways in which the try to navigate a  world in which their bodies, their genders, their existence, can be criminalized.  Historical fiction buffs, this one’s for you.

5. Crime and Punishmen, Fyodr Dostoyevskii


For a long time this was my avowed favorite novel, and it still holds a special place for me.  It was probably my first experience with an untidy narrative that lived so completely in a character’s head that all of reality seemed warped, unreal even.  It’s also fitting for this list, as today is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Crime and Punishment is nothing if not an exploration of the author’s stormy relationship both with society and with ideas of revolution.

The Tuesday List: Parallelisms

What if you could step out of this world, the “real” world, and into another?  All the books on this list imagine just that, in their own way.

1. Roses and Rot, Kat Howard


At a retreat for artists, where other worlds are explored through visual art, music, writing, Imogen discovers that there is another world waiting just beyond the borders of the property, and is confronted by the question of what she would do, when offered the chance at not only a glimpse of this world, but success beyond her dreams.

2. A Daughter of No Nation, A.M. Dellamonica


This one is actually the second in a series, but somehow managed to slip past my orderly reading practices.  Sophie returns to the world of Stormwrack, made up of brief archipelagos of land among the wilds of the oceans.  Magic is involved, and a lot of nautical journeying.

3. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E.Schwab


Follow Kell and his magical coat as he moves between red, gray, and white London, smuggling magical items between worlds, until he meets with Lila in grey London and is confronted by true darkness.

4. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki


This isn’t really a novel about slipping between parallel worlds, but about the parallelisms that happen when artifacts of one life bleed into another’s, when life in one’s personal world becomes more than they can bear and only slipping into someone else’s life offers and succor.

5. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho


Cho moves the faery story into the 21st century with this novel of magic and sorcery in early empire Great Britain, in which a new Sorcerer Royal, former African slave Zacharias Wythe, is tasked with finding the reason for the decline of magic in Britain who runs head on into a young woman, Prunella Gentleman, determined to make her way in the world and learn the true story of her parentage and magical inheritance.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

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.

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.

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

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.