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.