Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Book Reviews: November 2015

This month we review Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Updraft by Fran Wilde, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, and Serpentine by Cindy Pon.

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN 978-0425283370
Ace Books, September 2015
384 pages

Sorcerer to the CrownWhat happens when England’s first black Sorcerer Royal meets a half-Indian young woman with exceptional magical talent? Can magic power and sheer stubbornness overcome centuries of institutional racism and sexism? Is that a unicorn? Where did the unicorn come from? Sorcerer to the Crown seeks to answer these questions in the most delightful way possible.

Zacharias Wythe never asked to be Sorcerer Royal, and the rumors that he murdered his predecessor and his famed familiar certainly don’t make his position any more enviable. He has a secret, though, as only he truly knows what happened that fateful night. Prunella Gentleman also has a secret, gifts from the parents she never knew, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get to London and make use of them. He’s a straight-laced magician and she’s a young firebrand: sparks are going to fly. Their dynamic reminded me of Kell and Lila from V.E. Schwab’s great A Darker Shade of Magic; both Prunella and Lila are amoral and goal-oriented, which generally causes Zacharias and Kell to just bury their faces in their hands.

The world of the book recalls Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Regency London, a society of white male magicians concerned with the decline of English magic, a connection to fairies. But Zen Cho diversifies that world immensely, not only with her protagonists, but by acknowledging magicians and magical creatures in other parts of the world, like India, China, and Malaysia. Although the practice of “females” doing magic is frowned upon by English society, Cho doesn’t care; she’ll show us all sorts of women doing magic. She proves there are so many more stories to be mined from that era, and now that Mary Robinette Kowal has concluded her wonderful Glamourist Histories series, I know where to go to get my Regency-inspired fantasy fix.

It’s hard to pinpoint what the “main” plot of the book is, as many different stories are introduced in the first several chapters. The mystery of what happened to the previous Sorcerer Royal, and how it may relate to Zacharias’s strange sickness. A matter of diplomacy involving a Malaysian witch and a plague of lamiae. Prunella’s discovery of gifts and investigation into who her parents were. The mystery of the decline of English magic. Prunella’s desire to find a rich husband. Despite having so many threads, the narrative never lags or gets confusing, and I was impressed by how well Cho tied so many of them together. The resolutions are mostly satisfying, with a few teases for the future.

Zen Cho firmly establishes herself as a fresh, important voice with this book, if her excellent short story collection, Spirits Abroad, hadn’t already. The word “delightful” always comes to mind when I describe her stories; I appreciate how refreshingly non-soul crushing they are. Sorcerer to the Crown sparkles with Austenesque wit, its sly charm making me smile throughout. At times, I was so giddy I hugged the book to my chest. We need more books like this.

Updraft
Fran Wilde
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN 978-0765377838
Tor Books, September 2015
368 pages

UpdraftI have read nothing more terrifying this year than the description of skymouths in the first chapter of Fran Wilde’s Updraft. After taking only a few pages to establish a world where people live in giant bone towers and fly around on mechanical wings, she introduces a mouth that opens in the sky that’s full of teeth and tentacles and also the creature is invisible. Though Updraft is not a horror book, the power of that image speaks to Wilde’s ability to immerse us in her world. From the nature of the Laws to the vertical hierarchy of the towers themselves, she conveys information by allowing us to experience it, without infodumps.

In that first chapter, Kirit, a young girl on the verge of taking her wingtest—like a combination driver’s license/citizenship test—breaks one of those Laws, and she attracts the interest of the Singers, the mysterious, tattooed protectors of the city. They want to take her away to train at the Spire, but she doesn’t want to leave her single mom, Ezarit, or her best friend, Nat. Then Nat stumbles upon some strange carvings that raise questions whose answers can lie only in the Spire.

Though not marketed as young adult, Updraft would not be out of place on such a shelf. A teenage girl who discovers she has a special ability. Her male best friend of many years (who, in a welcome change of pace, is not a love interest). A missing parent. A possibly dystopian government with secrets that must be exposed. Tests, initiations, bullies, allies, they’re all here! Though the bones of the story—no pun intended—are familiar, the book engaged my imagination like no other book this year. Because the world is so unlike our own, it challenged all my perceptions: What would life be like if you lived in the clouds, where “ground” is a foreign concept, where the only method of transportation is individual flight? Kirit, the narrator, does not know the reader is used to things like “walking” and “cars”; she speaks as to one of her own. As a result, a few shocking revelations didn’t have as much impact as they ought to because I didn’t share the same baseline of reality as Kirit. What was surprising to her was simply an additional piece of information about an unfamiliar world to me.

Wilde hammers home a few recurring, connected themes that deepen the story. At the center are secrets: both of Kirit’s family history as well as the history of the city itself. Then comes loyalty: once again, to her family and friends, and to the Singers and the city they protect. Finally, the ominous refrain of tradition: What are the dangers of doing things because That’s How They’ve Always Been Done? Things get more and more complex, with secrets upon secrets, and Kirit not knowing who to trust; my head was practically spinning by the time Wilde delivered the fist-pumping climax.

Updraft comes to a satisfying conclusion yet makes it clear this city in the sky will never be the same. I’d like a first-class ticket to book two, please.

The House of Shattered Wings
Aliette de Bodard
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN 978-0451477385
Roc Books, August 2015
416 pages

House of Shattered WingsThe House of Shattered Wings opens with a powerful, striking sequence, as Aliette de Bodard allows us to Fall from Heaven along with the angel Isabelle, the wind whistling, our wings burning, our bones shattering. Capturing us with her language, she then leads us through a turn-of-the-century Paris ravaged by a Great War between angels, introducing the major players. Isabelle, a Fallen angel seeking a sense of purpose. Philippe, a Vietnamese immortal with a magic all his own. Selene, leader of House Silverspires, determined to learn Philippe’s secret. Madeleine, a dying alchemist with conflicted loyalties. And the ever-present specter of the absent Morningstar, first of the Fallen.

This book positively crackles with magic and intrigue, and, like Isabelle, I fell deep into this world. The ruins of a beautiful city. Warring Houses of angels still vying for power. Magical abilities gained through inhalation of ground angel bones. And mysteries! So many mysteries. Each character has a specific mystery associated with them, and that’s even before bodies start turning up and the story shifts focus to the murder mystery that drives the main plot.

The shifting POVs make it difficult to identify a single protagonist, if the book even has one. Though we begin with Isabelle, I found her to be the least developed character; I would have liked to see more about her experience as a newly Fallen angel. Selene, on the other hand, grabbed me immediately, a fierce yet vulnerable leader hoping to live up to her predecessor, the Devil himself. Philippe, the outsider, unwittingly sets off the entire plot, and I enjoyed his journey. But the true heart of the story is Madeleine, the major human character and thus the most relatable, who is not inherently special like the others but tries so hard to do what’s right. I wanted to wrap my angel wings around her and keep her safe.

De Bodard weaves together so many plots that halfway through the book I had no idea where the story was going, which was exciting. The story takes several unexpected turns—an especially notable one thanks to Philippe—and arranges the major players such that they all have a role in the page-turning climax. But even though I enjoyed the energy of the sequence, I thought it was somewhat unsatisfactory. We don’t really get to know the villain. Various interesting elements in play become jumbled, and the nebulous rules of magic allow for some deus ex magica. We’re left with plenty of loose ends and unresolved mysteries to explore in the second book of the duology.

The House of Shattered Wings brings a fresh take on the angel mythos, combining it with post-apocalyptic tropes and Eastern mythology. Filled with characters to love, hate, and love to hate, the book draws you into a world you’ll be sad to leave and happy to return to.

Serpentine
Cindy Pon
Paperback/Ebook
ISBN 978-1942664338
Month9Books, September 2015
300 pages

SerpentineBeing a teenage girl is hard enough, but it’s harder still when you discover you’re a serpent demon. Things get worse when you find out the hot monk boy you’re crushing on is training to kill demons. To top it all off, the girl you’ve known your whole life, whom you care for more than anyone else in the world, is paying a lot of attention to some new girl.

Skybright’s life is a mess.

From the opening chapter of Serpentine, when Skybright climbs a tree to get a better view of a monastery, I was immersed in the world. Even with limited descriptions of setting, I could picture the cloudy mountains, the dark forests, the lavish manors. Cindy Pon spends no time delineating the rules and customs of her fantasy world; rather, she trusts the reader to follow along. Our main character is a handmaid? Okay! Everyone believes the word of a seer? Sure! Ghosts are hanging out in the forest? All right then! I loved how comfortable the worldbuilding felt, which makes sense, given that Pon has written books set in the Kingdom of Xia before, though this story is unconnected.

What really drew me into the book, however, was the characters, especially Skybright. It can’t be easy to wake up with the lower half of a snake and a forked tongue, especially when serpent demons are known to be murderous temptresses. Thus Skybright isn’t only dealing with a physical change but a possible mental one: Is she evil? She must also confront her feelings for Zhen Ni, her mistress, and Kai Sen, a monk, who have secrets of their own. Also creatures from the underworld are tearing through a breach in reality. Pon packs quite a lot into this short novel, and things move swiftly—a little too swiftly, as some developments don’t have enough room to breathe. While I loved seeing Skybright adapt to her serpentine form and start decapitating demons, I wished I’d seen more of her transition, building that confidence and acceptance. Yet the book doesn’t feel overstuffed either, and all of the plot elements come into play by the end.

Although the romance between Skybright and Kai Sen drives much of the narrative in the first half, I was more engaged by the relationship between Skybright and Zhen Ni. Handmaid and mistress, they’re practically sisters, and even though it can feel like Zhen Ni is cruel and Skybright passive thanks to the power dynamic, there’s love there (they do share a kiss in the first chapter, but it’s not that kind of love . . . which is not to say that kind of love doesn’t exist in the book). The power of their friendship drives the narrative in the second half, which had me turning pages as I barreled toward the end, wanting everyone and everything to be okay. There’s some resolution, but mostly it makes me hungry for the conclusion to this duology.

Serpentine features ghosts and demons and queerness and zombies and kissing. What else needs to be said?

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Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”