By Zen Cho
This has been a trying couple of weeks – I’ve been obsessively reading twitter and facebook until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I read fiction until I can’t stand being away from social media. Zen Cho, however, has been a real comfort during these times, though.
The novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features a Malaysian woman trying to make a living as a journalist in Victorian-era England. It is short and funny and touching, all told through her journal entries. It just felt very much like a story by a woman for other women.* The male characters, both good and bad, are only given context in relation to Jade, and the story focuses primarily on her growth as a young adult trying to establish her sense of self. So, this was extremely comforting in these worrisome times.
Sorcerer to the Crown, the full-length novel, starts slowly and in very high-fantasy fashion, set in a magical version of Regency-era England. It reminded me almost immediately of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but luckily it picks up the pace much more quickly. Zacharias Wythe, as a very young boy, proves his extraordinary magical ability in front of a large panel of sorcerers, who promptly all lose their shit. This is not because Zacharias shows such promise so early, but rather because he is a freed African slave. The lead sorcerer adopts him and trains him to be his successor as Sorcerer Royal, the position he holds at the time the book.
A large contingent of white sorcerers actively work against him, even against their own self-interest, solely in order to oust him from his position by spreading outrageous rumors and innuendos. As the story revolves around an extremely thoughtful and conscientious black man trying to navigate the world of magic through difficult times, while surrounded by white men who are actively rooting for his failure, it became much less of an escapist fantasy.
Zacharias then runs across a young woman who shows strong magical abilities, and decides to train her, in the face of all traditional lore saying that magic is beyond women’s understanding. Reading about this black man conquering his enemies and silencing his naysayers, while working with a woman to do the same with hers, just about broke my heart. We didn’t get the ending we deserved, but at least this fictional world did.
*If I can be excused a diversion for an additional recommendation – a few months ago I saw “The Dressmaker,” and I absolutely loved it! It is an Australian film that didn’t get a lot of showings, even though it stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The preview looked amazing to me – a haute couture dressmaker has to move back to her very rural Australian town in order to take care of her elderly mother – but the reviews were mixed. The negative reviews all tended to revolve around uneven storytelling and shifting mood, and I started to formulate a theory that this movie might be telling a story in a more traditionally female way, one that focuses on relationships and character growth, rather than a single-trajectory action sequence. Seeing the movie absolutely confirmed that for me, and it felt amazing to see a movie that was so clearly by women about women and for women.