The Final Strife

The cover of Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

The Wardens’ Empire violently enforces its rigid caste structure, drawn along racial lines.

At the top of the hierarchy are red-blooded Embers, the descendants of those who fled an apocalypse they termed The Ending Fire. These are the overseers and the administrators, and the only ones taught to write, which would allow one to perform magic called Bloodwerk. Every ten years the Wardens hold the Aktibar, in which aspirants for leadership in each of the four guilds, Truth, Duty, Strength, and Knowledge, compete in a series of trials. The winner in each set of trials becomes the guild Disciple for ten years before ascending to the position of Warden for the following ten years.

Next are the Dusters, whose blue blood stains the fields when their overseers need to meet production quotas. From the numbers of the Dusters come The Sandstorm, a secretive rebellion who hatched an audacious plan to kidnap Embers from their crib, replacing them with Duster children, and raising the Embers to enter the Aktibar, albeit with a different agenda from most aspirants. It is a closely guarded guarded secret that one of the kidnapped infants was the child of Uka Elsari, the Warden of Strength.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Ghostings, a race that serves in menial capacities beneath the notice of the Embers and Dusters except in that they seem to be dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness. And yet, Embers also consider clear-blooded Ghostings the greatest threat to the empire. Embers mutilate Ghosting children, severing their hands and tongues, and forcing them to develop both tools and communication techniques to accommodate their disability. While some Embers maintain that this practice is meant to help Ghostings, its murky origins some four hundred years earlier reflect the existential threat that posed by the knowledge that Ghostings pass down through the generations.

In The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi sets a simple story within this sophisticated world. The book weaves together three plot threads that all build toward the Aktibar trials.

The first plot follows Sylah, one of the Ember children raised by The Sandstorm. However, some years ago, the Embers attacked the camp where The Sandstorm had been training. Sylah escaped the massacre and made her way to Nar-Ruta where, in the shadow of the Warden’s Keep, she fights in illicit matches organized by the enigmatic master criminal Loot and indulges in the ecstasy of the joba seed. However, this life is disrupted when Jond, one of the other children from The Sandstorm, arrives in Nar-Ruta to compete in the imminent Aktibar. In an attempt to reclaim the life that she lost, Sylah finds herself infiltrating the Warden’s Keep.

The second plot is that of Anoor Elsari. To the public, Anoor is the daughter of the Warden of Strength, but she is also Uka Elsari’s greatest shame and thus receives nothing but contempt behind closed doors. After all, she is actually a Duster. However, Anoor has a decision to make after she subdues a dangerous intruder in her chambers. Either she can turn Sylah over to the authorities or she can make her provide the necessary training to not just enter the Aktibar, but to win it. Either Anoor will win the Aktibar and prove her mother wrong or she will reveal her blue blood and demonstrate Uka Elsari’s dark secret. If only she can solve Sylah’s addiction in time to make the plan work.

Behind these two threads lies Hassa, a Ghosting woman who is helping others escape from their servitude. However, she has also been collecting scraps of incendiary information that threatens to expose the artificiality of the seemingly immutable social order that underpins the Wardens’ Empire.

Parts of The Final Strife struck me as “paint by numbers.” The Aktibar offers a simple progression of obstacles that increase in difficulty, while the joba seeds are the consequence of Sylah’s past that she must overcome. Nor was I particularly surprised by any of the reveals (is Sylah Uka Elsari’s biological daughter? will Anoor win the Aktibar?). And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself taken by this world that is inspired by the African and Arabian traditions. For instance, the main narrative is punctuated by the tales told by griots and fragments from Warden archives and other sources open every chapter, thus giving glimpses into the larger world. Likewise, as is common in a lot of recent speculative fiction, el-Arifi uses this world to comment on contemporary issues from trans-inclusion (Hassa is a trans woman) to disability (Ghostings have developed a unique culture that compensates for their physical limitations) to rigid racial hierarchies (self-explanatory). These elements gave depth to the world in the best way.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Final Strife is as a first book in a trilogy. Even the parts that I found predictable gave the book momentum while also allowing el-Arifi to lay the groundwork a larger story and I am looking forward to learning what sort of revolution she has in store for this world.

ΔΔΔ

This semester got entirely away from me, as sometimes happens. I actually finished The Final Strife back in September and am using my goals for #AcWriMo as an excuse to finally write about it.

Since the last post with a reading roundup, I have read five books.

I finished reading Gideon the Ninth, which I will not be writing a full post about because I found it deeply frustrating. It has a potentially interesting galactic setting, but that setting emerges almost entirely through the representatives of each planet who have arrived at a palatial laboratory in the hopes of ascending to the Emperor’s inner circle only to find that someone is killing them. I also found the plot predictable, at least as much as I could within my limited grasp of the mechanics of the world.

Two nonfiction and two novels make up the remaining four books. I already wrote about Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow and I have plans to write about Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews, a topical and timely examination of how Jews fit into the course of American political life. For the novels, I am going to write about R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is an excellent indictment of orientalism and academic life, but am on the fence about Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist, a dystopian novel set in a bunker where a society has recreated itself under the watchful eye of the political leader who brought them there. This novel was effective in exploring the compromises one can make in the face of bleak options, but it also did not resonate with me as much as other books with a similar message

I am now reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I am enjoying very much.

Course Planning: “Historicizing Speculative Fiction”

I have had an abiding love of speculative fiction for about as long as I can remember. I have a memory of my father reading the stories of Tolkien and Lewis to me and my younger brothers, and, at some point, I started reading ahead on my own to complete my first of many read-throughs of The Lord of the Rings. I started reading The Wheel of Time in elementary school and was deeply disturbed by descriptions of the blight. I picked up A Song of Ice and Fire sometime in middle school, mostly because I was drawn to the cover art. I also read a lot of bad speculative fiction in those days and am retroactively pleased with my youthful dissatisfaction with certain books.

I say all of this by way of prologue.

First year students at Brandeis (my undergraduate institution) took a “University Seminar in Humanistic Inquiries” course. These courses are designed as seminars on a coherent topic that begins establishing transferable skills and lays a foundation for further progression in college. If I’m being honest, I don’t recall my section of this course being particularly successful (I got into my third choice, after my top choice taught by my future adviser filled up before I enrolled), but I like the idea of the course.

Truman State offers “Self and Society” seminars that work toward the same end while also promoting multi- and inter-disciplinary thinking. One of the myriad of things that has been consuming my time this semester is that I was offered an opportunity to design and offer a course. The remit of these courses have to meet a certain level of disciplinary background, they are also a space that can allow for professors to create courses based on their areas of interest, outside the usual disciplinary constraints. The course I pitched, and that I am now designing to be taught next semester is “Historicizing Speculative Fiction.”

I read speculative fiction as a historian, which makes sense given my professional training and areas of expertise. One of my pet peeves about speculative fiction is when the world itself is undeveloped, while, by contrast, I will often overlook narrative or character issues if I have fallen in love with a creative world. When I proposed the course, I explained that while these genres of literature have their roots in myths and legends, these invented worlds are reflections of real world issues. Thus, the course description:

In this section, we will use speculative fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy stories—to approach the issues of Self and Society. Once framed as niche interests, these stories make up some of the biggest pieces of intellectual property in the world today. Such stories might seem like simple entertainments featuring wizards and elves and dragons, but these worlds and the ideas we bring with us to talk about them reflect very present concerns about society and our place in them. So step through the wardrobe with me and let’s see how we can use these stories to better understand ourselves.

My idea for the course is to build a series of thematic units each built around one novel, or a primary and a back-up that could be substituted in future iterations. These novels are supplemented with short stories, essays about popular culture, and selections from other authors. These units are interchangeable by design, such that each time the course is offered I can swap units in and out. For the first iteration, I have chosen four units: World-building and historicism (P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn), Power, Language and Authority (Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan), The Environment (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower), Self, Society, and the Worlds we Create (Susanna Clarke, Piranesi). You can see the core reading list at the end of this post.

The core reading list is intentionally diverse, with the intent being to break students away from the expected canon for a course like this and to introduce them to the range of creative stories that exist. I won’t say that it was easy to craft this reading list. My personal tastes in fantasy stories run to very long books and extended series, and I can’t reasonably set the four books of The Dandelion Dynasty and expect the students to actually read them all, even though it might be the most perfect series for this course. However, I have also been greatly enjoying the excuse to read short stories in preparation for the course—more than once this semester you might have found me weeping in my office because of something I had just read. But I also have more to do still, since I would like at least one short story to fill out the unit on the environment.

The other work-in-progress for this course is the list of assignments. Some of these are going to be straightforward (e.g. book reviews and a course journal), but I am also concocting some creative assignments designed to get students to make students engage with the course themes in different ways. For instance, one assignment is going to be an “Inventing Utopia” group project where the students will work in groups to design their own utopias and present them as a poster presentation.

One thing I want to be particularly careful about with this course is striking a balance between sharing with the students all of these things that I think are particularly great without overloading the students who are in their first or second semester of college. I am beyond excited to be teaching this course, but if my enthusiasm leads to a course that is packed to the gills with amazing books and stories, then it won’t allow any space for the analysis and reflection where the actual learning happens.

Core Reading List

Introduction

  • Excerpts from Arthur stories and Beowulf
  • Nibedita Sen, “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

Unit 1: World-building and historicism

  • P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn
  • Selections of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin
  • Adam Serwer, “Fear of a Black Hobbit” (the Atlantic)
  • Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Unit 2: Power, Language, and Authority

  • Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
  • Ken Liu, “Paper Menagerie”
  • Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”

Unit 3: The Environment

  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Appendices to Dune

Unit 4: Self, Society, and the Worlds We Create

  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  • Rebecca Roanhorse, “My Authentic Indian Experiencetm
  • N.K. Jemisin, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”

Alternate Units

  • Orientalism: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • Colonialism: undecided
  • Epic Journeys: Neil Gaimon, Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Gender: Ursula le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

Speaking Bones

“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”

“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”

“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.

Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.

(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)

The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.

The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.

Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.

The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.

Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.

But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.

Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.

Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.

What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.

The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.

Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:

“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”

“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.

“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”

In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.

ΔΔΔ

The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

A List of my Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels (2022 Edition)

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

A few stats:

  • Oldest: 1937 (Starmaker)
  • Newest: 2021 (A Master of Djinn)

Tier 3
34. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
33. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
32. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wexler (2013)
31. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
30. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
29. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
28. Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer (1983)
27. The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart (2020)
26. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
25. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
24. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
23. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
21. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
20. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
19. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
18. A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark (2021)
17. A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019)
16. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
15. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
14. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
13. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
12. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
11. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
10. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
9. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)

Tier 1
7. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

The following section is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. Several caveats apply to this list. First, I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list. Second: where an ongoing series ranks depends in part on my estimation of the most recent books. Most notably for this iteration, Ken Liu’s series skipped past several series based largely on how much I loved last year’s release, and Arkady Martine’s books made a stunning debut in this category in large part because of A Desolation Called Peace. There is at least one first-book-in-a-series on the list above that I loved as a standalone, but was less impressed with how the series developed. The Expanse books would likely fall in Tier 3 between Tao and Shades, but I have only read half the books at the time this post went up.

Tier 3
19. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
18. The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
17. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
16. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
15. Machineries of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee
14. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu
13. Shades of Magic, V.E. Schwab

Tier 2
12. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
11. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
10.The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
9. The Daevabad Trilogy, Shannon Chakraborty
8. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
7. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson
6. Teixcalaan Series, Arkady Martine

Tier 1
5. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had mixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

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I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

The Veiled Throne

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books are the best fantasy stories I almost never see anyone talking about, full stop. Yes, they have received positive reviews from outlets like NPR, but I very rarely encounter anyone who has read them, perhaps because in form they are so unlike most major fantasy novels currently available.

Set on Dara, a self-contained continent protected by the wall of storms and a pantheon of gods, the series begins with The Grace of Kings, which tells the story of the rise of Kuni Garu and his eventual triumph over his onetime friend, the Hegemon, Mata Zyndu. The second book, The Wall of Storms, appears set to turn this tale of banditry and adventure into one of courtly intrigue centered on Jia and Risana, Kuni Garu’s two principal wives. However, Liu completely upturns these expectations with the introduction of warlike Lyucu.

Under a previous dynasty the scholars of Dara discovered that the Wall of Storms intermittently opens, so the emperor Mapidere organized an expedition on enormous city ships in order to conquer this new land, called Ukyu-Gonde. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Lyucu, they nevertheless defeated the expedition and, under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryo, launched an invasion of Dara during the next opening of the Wall of Storms. This expedition seized the outlying islands of Dasu and Rui, but the forces of Dara turned them back when they attempted to invade the main island. This victory, won by the barest of margins, cost the people of Dara. Kuni Garu died, his first heir (Prince Timu, turned Emperor Thake) sacrificed himself as the bride of Tenryo’s successor Tanvanki, and the next in line, Princess Thera, engaged herself Takval of the Agon, the anscestral enemies of the Lyucu enslaved by Tenryo, and led an armada to Ukyu-Gonde.

Such is the situation in Dara when The Veiled Throne opens. Empress Jia holds the regency in Pan where she tries to maintain the delicate ten-year truce with the Lyucu while the emperor, her step-son Phyro, agitates for direct action. Timu tries to find accomodation for the people of Dara against their brutal Lyucu overlords, and Thera tries to stage a rebellion among the Agon.

The Veiled Throne actually starts with an extended flashback to Ukyu-Gonde before the Lyucu invasion of Dara. During the period of the Dara invasion, Goztan Ryoto had been one of the Lyucu women enslaved by the foreigners, and her “master” named her “Obedience.” However, Goztan was a plant, one of the women Tenryo persuaded to feign subservience in order to kill the men of Dara and so was rewarded by becoming one of the loyal thanes who would in time lead the invasion of Dara.

However, something unusual happened during her captivity. Goztan came to appreciate that not all men of Dara were abjectly evil. Eventually this led her to become particularly attached to one of the Dara slaves, Oga, even taking him to bed, despite her other five husbands.

Back in the contemporary timeline, Goztan is the leader of the moderate party in the Lyucu territory, preaching accomodations and even having her son Savo educated by an independent scholar of Dara. This is a capital offense, particularly when discovered by Goztan’s rival thane, Cutanrovo, who believes that the only good Dara is a dead Dara. This political conflict will kick off a chain of events that send Savo (also known by the Dara name Kinri Rito) spinning into exile on the mainland of Dara where he will be adopted first by the Widow Wasu, proprietess of The Splendid Urn, the greatest restaurant in Ginpen, and then by the Splendid Blossom Gang, a motley crew of vagabonds who wander Dara doing good deeds. It is at the Splendid Urn where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Dandelion, a young woman who everyone seems to know the backstory of except him.

Events in Ginpen, and particularly a delightful culinary competition between The Splendid Urn and The Treasure Chest run by the awful Tiphan Huto that reads like an extended restaurant wars out of the TV show Top Chef, come to the foreground in the latter section of The Veiled Throne. This section culimates with the Splendid Blossom Gang’s true objective: the infiltration of the imperial laboratory and archive hidden near Ginpen. However, much like the first two books, the narrative actually whips between several discrete storylines that variously intersect in both themes and events, while each chapter is situated in time, with a countdown pointing toward the next opening of the Wall of Storms. Thus:

On Ukyu-Gonde, Thera establishes contact with the Agon and works to establish a joint society, even while needing to collaborate with her husband’s duplicitous uncle who might betray them to the Lyucu at any time.

In a secret base in the mountains, the emperor Phyro oversees the raising of Garinafins, enormous, flying, fire-breathing creatures that are one of the secrets to the Lyucu military supremacy. Phyro continually petitions the regent to build up an invasion of “Unredeemed Dara,” all the while dreaming of military glory.

In Pan, the capital of Dara, Empress Jia plays politics, holding the state together for an emperor with little experience or interest in governing, preserving a delicate peace, and making preparations that suggest she is not so oblivious to the need to reclaim the lost territories as Phyro might think. However, her secrecy leads to conflict with members of the court like the Farisight Secretary Zomi Kidosu, the daughter of a Dasu fishing family (Oga and Aki Kidosu), whose mother was killed during the Lyucu invasion.

The Dandelion Dynasty rejects many of traditional fantasy narrative beats. Each book spans years and many scenes feel like vignettes to a larger epic story that I once likened to the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sometimes this means a particular storyline will just get one short scene before skipping ahead several years, while others, like the restaurant wars described above, will get multiple lengthy chapters. Further, each individual scene conforms to the demands of its subject, with Liu seemingly pulling from inspirations as diverse as heists to a reality television show, to the Chinese ancient dialogues like Han Dynasty’s Discourses on Salt and Iron. Far from feeling uneven, though, these imbalances allow Liu to build in depth to the world and often to imbue it with playfulness and life.

Reading all of that, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed. This book, much like the two that came before it, are a lot, and I often had to refer back to the dramatis personae to keep the relationships between the various characters straight. However, since the reviews of the first two books in the series are among my least favorite posts I have ever written here, I wanted to give this book its full due.

Ultimately, each of the three books to date follows a single compelling theme. The Grace of Kings is the simplest: it is the rise of power of Kuni Garu, the bandit who would become king. The Wall of Storms is a story about the clash of civilizations and the lengths people will go to in times of desparation. The Veiled Throne, in turn, is about negotiating cultural fusion, particularly when faced with the twin challenges of history and misinformation.

When I wrote about The Wall of Storms, I framed one of my comments as a way to get ahead of potential criticism, saying that Liu has a way of addressing contemporary issues in fiction. This was the wrong way to frame the issue. These books feel fresh exactly because Liu deftly weaves contemporary issues into the larger threads of the story. That is, he didn’t write a story about homosexual relationships, women in the military, bigotry, ethnic cleansing, standardized tests, refugee camps, or disability, but he did write a story with each of these elements. Similarly, the “silk-punk” technology that is a hallmark of these stories is a fanciful reimagination of, for instance, the technologies found in the treasure fleets created for the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth century. Moreover, in bucking many story patterns typical of a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy books, Liu is able to create a world that is more interesting, more vivacious, and more true to life than those in a lot of other books in the genre.

In short, The Veiled Throne is an excellent novel that only builds on the achievement of the earlier books. While there is so much going on that I sometimes found myself struggling to remember what had happened in earlier books, that mostly made me want to revisit them. My only complaint here is that we have to wait for the conclusion of the story, which, while written as a single book with The Veiled Throne, is being released under the title Speaking Bones in June 2022.

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My reading over this holiday has been David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating The Dawn of Everything, which looks to overturn a lot of the conventional wisdom about the early history of human civilization and ask critical questions about how we became frozen in a broadly similar set of social structures. This is a book that gives a lot to think about.

A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

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I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.

The Golem and the Jinni

I am way behind on book posts given the start of the new semester. I actually read this one almost a month ago and only just not had the energy to write about it. I expect these posts to be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be able to write a few each weekend and delay publishing for a few days so that there are more regular updates.

“But love founded only on loneliness and desire will die out before long. A shared history, tradition, and values will link two people more thoroughly than any physical act.”

It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her.

I am usually skeptical of speculative fiction where the author too blatantly uses a historical setting because it pulls me out of the story. This may be one of the downsides to being a historian. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across The Golem and the Jinni, a story set in a very particular historical milieu and discovered that it worked exceedingly well.

What Wecker does is to tell an immigrant story using folklore from two cultures that come into dialogue in interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni opens not with the Golem, but with her creator. On the eve of leaving Poland for the new world, Otto Rotfeld seeks the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman to make for him a wife—a wife who is submissive, attentive, and curious. Yehudah makes for him a golem with instructions not to wake her until he has landed, but Otto falls ill on the passage and animates her in one of his final acts. The golem is thus awakened and conscious of the needs and wants of first an entire boat and then a city, New York, where she is taken in by a kindly rabbi who takes her in, names her Chava, and sets her up with a job in a bakery in the Jewish neighborhood.

At roughly the same time, a tin-smith in Little Syria awakens a jinni who has been imprisoned in a flask for over a thousand years. Trapped in human form, the jinni has little choice but to act as the smith’s apprentice even though he chafes at being forced to live within this society rather than being his own master in the desert, which leads him to seek experiences generally not open to the residents of Little Syria such as seducing the wealthy heiress Sophia Winston.

Ahmad senses a kindred spirit when he stumbles across Chava, albeit one made of earth rather than fire.

Much of the The Golem and the Jinni, comes in the form of these two double-outsiders learning to make their way in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. They have the twin tasks of learning to live among humans even as the humans they are living amongst are learning to live in a new country. Neither requires sleep, so they are left to fill the hours that everyone else sleeps: Ahmad roams restlessly, Chava staves off boredom with minor tasks. And yet, the days are even harder for Chava given that she can sense the desires of everyone around her and her creator imbued her with instructions to obey these commands, but, eventually, curiosity will get the best of her.

However, the plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Schaalman who gives into his own curiosity about his creation. As it happens, Ahmad is exactly what Schaalman has been searching for his entire life. It is up to Chava and Ahmad to defeat this person who has enormous power over both of them before he can bend them to his will.

Wecker recently published a second novel in this series, but I am lukewarm about reading it. I loved The Golem and the Jinni both as a conceit and in the execution of its plot. Chava and Ahmad were solid enough characters, but they worked because of how their alienness was able to reflect and harmonize with the immigrant communities of 1900s New York City.

The synopsis of the new book The Hidden Palace promises more of the same, but over a longer span and with a more sprawling cast that includes more of their own kind. At first blush, this is a reasonable premise, but I am concerned that widening the scope will lose some of the magic of the first book.

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My reading has continued apace. I have another post scheduled on A Master of Djinn and expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff-Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. While I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, I am not finding going the other way nearly as objectionable.

Two heirs to Jonathan Strange

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when I finally read it a few years ago. I had resisted reading it because people had compared it to Dickens, whose work I don’t care for. When I finally got over my hesitancy, I found a layered book based on a historical period, just with the magic of Faerie. That magic exists—its return is a plot point—and sits at the heart of the story, but it does so on the edges of awareness, as though it was here all along and people just didn’t notice. It is a compelling piece of world-building achieved by situating historical figures on the edges of the story so that the plot can focus on our two eponymous magicians.

Recently, I have read two books that could warrant comparison to Clarke’s masterpiece: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and H.G. Parry’s The Declaration of Rights of Magicians. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, both novels are set at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in Europe and inject a heavy dose of magic into the historical setting.

Where one of these two books is successful, the other was one of my least favorite reads in quite a long time.

The good first.

And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?

If Clarke’s book was Dickens, then Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown may well be Austen, albeit with a race and gender rejoinder to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The era remains Georgian England during the Napoleonic War, and magic flows into the country from the Fairyland. This time, magic is governed by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers headed by the Sorcerer Royal. Except this normally august post has been corrupted in the eyes of the gentry by its current occupant, Zacharias Wythe, the emancipated ward of its previous occupant. As if his blackness weren’t sufficient, Wythe has, well, “unnatural” ideas about the governance of magic. Namely, he believes that women ought to be taught magic when conventional wisdom teaches that women’s “weaker” constitution makes them unsuitable for that sort of strain.

In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.

Sorcerer to the Crown kicks into high gear when Zacharias Wythe meets a precocious woman at a school for girls that conditions them to restrain their magic. Prunella Gentlewoman is the orphan daughter of an English magician and an unknown, but probably not English, woman. Despite her upbringing in the school, Prunella is anything but willing to accept the limits placed on her in this country.

In proper romance fashion, it is clear from early on that Zacharias and Prunella are going to wind up together, but first the story tears through a plot chock full of juicy social encounters between the members of the theurgical gentry and this seemingly mismatched pair.

I tore through Sorcerer to the Crown and found it a satisfying counterpoint to the sorts of social issues that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell didn’t directly address. Magic suffuses the world, but it serves as a metaphor for ideas about the proper social order, whether in terms of work for women or for racism. We rarely, if ever, meet a historical figure, which allows Cho to talk about people like Napoleon and Tipu Sultan without being forced to imbue them with life or narrate their doings. She even had the rare achievement of bringing in blood and bloodlines in a way that actually made sense:

“Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

I don’t know if I will read the rest of the series just because this style of romance isn’t my favorite type of story, but I can also unambiguously recommend this book. I had little quibbles, but I enjoyed the story well enough and the world-building was almost entirely satisfying to me in much the same way that I appreciate Clarke’s work.

Next the bad.

It has been a while since I read a book that I disliked as much as A Declaration of Rights of Magicians.

The year is 1779 in a world with magic and France is ripe for a revolution. This is world where magic is common, but it is strictly controlled for the lower classes and certain types are banned outright, controlled by the Templar order. However, this is the Enlightenment, a time of change. Toussaint Louverture, a weather mage, is leading a rebellion on Saint-Domingue, while the mesmer Maximillian Robespierre challenges the authorities in France and the young Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, proposes that the lower classes be allowed to perform magic.

Parry clearly did a lot of research for this book and she tries to turn broad social and political movements like the ones that brought William Pitt to office, prompted the Haitian Revolution, and brought about the Declaration of Rights of Man using magic as an allegory. Except that these were all real people and the world-building felt to me like a thin veneer with a few twists (the Templars, they still exist! those earlier wars were caused by vampires!) over real history. In fact, Parry nearly admits as much in the afterward where she says:

“This book is a mythologization of the real history of Britain, France, and Haiti in the eighteenth century, which is more interesting and dramatic and downright weird than anything I could make up.”

The characters are real. The plots are (almost) real. Since all of the big events, including the eponymous document, took place in the non-mythologized history, then the magic only serves to add some sparkle and, if anything, distract from the underlying issues. Compare this to Cho’s novel where magic is works as an allegory because of its intersection with two specific characters who unlock its potential to create problems in British society.

Clarke and Cho succeeded because they set their stories at a specific time and place, but built magic into the contours and shadows of the world. Then they largely avoided dramatizing real people. Instead, they manifested characters on whom to center their story. Clarke had the competition between Strange and Norrell; Cho had Prunella and Wythe against the English establishment at the same time as they circle each other.

Parry sprinkled magic over real events and then built a novel by dramatizing three largely distinct historical threads. Perhaps they are connected, and she hints as much, but her broad fidelity to historical events prevented this from striking me as anything but a dull recounting of events that lost something in their dramatization.

I finished the book because I’m still not good at giving up on a book I’ve started, but I mostly found myself thinking that a good history of the events would be more compelling.

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My recent purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite has meant that I’ve been tearing through a succession of library e-books recently. The due date on those books combined with the start of the semester this week has meant that I am behind on writing here. At this point I am probably not going to write about Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, which I liked quite a lot, or Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I enjoyed less. I also finished Kelly Baker’s Grace Period which I may or may not write about since it is a memoir about leaving academia, a topic I have written about quite a lot here in the past and it hit a little close to home. Highly recommended, though.

I am still hoping to write about Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which was a compelling immigrant story for many of the same reasons that I ascribed to Zen Cho’s book above. I also finished P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, a fun steampunk mystery set in an alternate Cairo, and Tahmima Anam’s sendup of startup culture The Startup Wife. The latter book is resonating a little too much at the moment, though, because I am currently reading Sheera Frankel and Cecelia Kang’s new exposé of facebook, An Ugly Truth.