It has been a while since I have read an entire novel in one day, but that is what I did today, after picking up Zen Cho's debut fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown this morning from Gillian. (I had it on hold at the library, but it didn't look as if it would get to me in time for book club on Saturday, and I didn't want to start the new year off with anything resembling last year's spectacular performance at failing at book clubs.) Since I have had such an epically productive new year thus far, I rewarded myself by drinking tea and reading for the entire afternoon. It was very satisfying.
The book itself was also very satisfying, being right up my alley in a number of different ways. It's got a lot of the elements I like in Gail Carriger's books Mary Robinette Kowal's books and in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, that it takes place in an alternate version of sometime in imperial England (in this case, it seems to be during the Napoleonic wars) where magic is not hidden; it's got strong comedy-of-manners elements; there is convoluted political intrigue; and it deals with some of imperial England's assorted oppressive social issues.
It also has two leads of color, out of a total of two leads--a black man and a half-white, half-Indian (I think) woman. Or rather, teenage girl. With very strong magical powers. Hyperpowered teenage girl sorceresses are a fav trope of mine going back to my early Tamora Pierce-reading days, so YAY. And I'm trying to seek out more books with men of color as point of view characters or narrators, because I read very few of those--I think I've been more likely to find books with WOC POVs than MOC POVs because I deliberately seek out books by and about women but I've never really specifically sought out books by or about men because, y'know, I really didn't have to, with the result that it was usually books about white men that crossed my path.
Lead character number one is Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of England, a manumitted slave and the adopted son of the former Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias is not the most popular Sorcerer Royal ever; indeed, he is probably the least popular Sorcerer Royal ever, considering he was trained by his adopted father basically as an experiment to prove that black people could learn thaumaturgy too, and the old guard of comfortable British gentleman with plummy accents and bad whiskers (the accents and whiskers not actually mentioned in the book, but c'mon, you know the type) is not very happy that he ended up outranking all of them. Despite being a polite, quiet, conscientious, intelligent, usually even-tempered sort of dude, Zacharias' racist good-old-boy rivals are happy to accuse him of whatever crimes pop into their heads, including having murdered his adopted father and his father's familiar. Zacharias has all of about two friends in the formerly glorious Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, both of whom are Drone Club-type dandies who are smarter than they look.
Lead character number two is the hilariously named Prunella Gentleman, an orphan girl living at a school for gentlewitches, where, in true British fashion, young girls of gentle birth and magical ability are taught how to not do magic, because magic is terribly dangerous and their little female bodies and brains are obviously too frail to handle it. The fact that there are clearly girls of such magical ability that they have to be trained out of doing it is, of course, absolutely no obstacle whatsoever to people continuing to believe this, nor are all the female magic users in other countries, since of course, people in other countries aren't British and therefore aren't really regular people anyway. Prunella has really quite a lot of magical ability even by the standards of the girls sequestered at this school; she also has no family, no money, and no prospects. Fortunately for her, she also has no scruples, no dependents, no romantic notions of the world, and no doubts about her own abilities. She's delightfully ambitious and calculating, leaving poor Zacharias to be entire conscience and moral center of the story.
Zacharias is mostly busy trying not to get assassinated and attempting to figure out why Britain's supply of atmospheric magic is dwindling, but he takes a brief detour on his way to the border between England and Faerie (where the magic is supposed to come from) to make a speech at Prunella's school, as a special favor to one of his two friends, who was supposed to make the speech originally but insists that he is too useless to pull it off. It is here that he meets Prunella and, after a series of unfortunate mishaps, takes her on as an apprentice. What he doesn't know is that, in addition to her considerable powers, Prunella has a couple of mysterious family treasures that are also probably of great sorcerous power, only she doesn't really know what they are or how to use them. To top everything off, some dipshit sultan from halfway across the world is attempting to prevail upon Britain to subdue a bunch of cranky vampire ladies who are causing trouble over in his kingdom.
At first, the more Zacharias and Prunella attempt to solve their respective mysteries, the most confusing everything gets. But eventually, a convoluted web of human and Faerie politics begins to emerge, suggesting that all these disparate issues might be connected--which means in order to fix it, everyone's secrets will eventually have to come out. Nobody is particularly happy about that.
Most of the conflicts in the plot are deeply rooted in Britain's oppressive social structures. In college, I took at class on British Romanticism, and we pretty much analyzed each book along the lines of what I've come to think of as England's Four Pillars of Fuckery: race, class, gender, and imperialism. These are not exclusive to English history, of course, but almost all of the history and art out of England from about 1500 onward can be understood in light of these four specific traditions of othering and oppressing people, which shaped English society in almost every aspect. In this book, rivalries and scheming arise as a result of white magicians' racism against Zacharias (and sometimes Prunella); male magicians' taboo against women practicing magic; the "gentlemen's" refusal to admit magic really existed in the lower orders (and an interesting intersection of class and gender in Prunella's mercenary concern for landing herself a husband in order to establish herself); and the results of the British Empire pissing off the sorcerers and sorceresses of the lands they conquered without really understanding how magic works there or admitting that it could rival British thaumaturgy in any real way. Apart from the magic angle, this fits in well with all the best actual British literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were also all about the various ways in which British society sucked and was oppressive. It also fits in well with a long tradition of hilarious secondary characters, but that could be a whole paper in and of itself.
(Note: Supposedly there's a plague of historical fiction about Regency and Victorian England that romanticizes it and doesn't address all the ways in which it was terrible, and I admit I've never really read any because I guess my recommendations-gathering system is too good? But hearing about its existence baffles me, because stuff like Jane Austen's books and the Bronte sisters' books and everything by Dickens and like all classic Britlit books are all pretty much about how English society sucked and was oppressive. I am mildly curious as to what non-"message fiction" about imperial England could possibly look like, but not enough to seek out any of it and read it. Hell, even Downton Abbey tries to deal with this stuff, even if it ends up pulling most of its punches 3/4 of the way through any given plotline.)
Anyway, I'm very, very much looking forward to deconstructing the hell out of this book next weekend.