Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Let me introduce the nine-year-old heroine, Tiffany Aching, of The Wee Free Men in her own words:

I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.

Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she DECIDES to be a witch. Partly it’s because she doesn’t understand why witches in all the fairy tales are called wicked: “where’s the evidence?” as she puts it. And partly it’s because all the stories that she’s read only happen to “blond people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes,” with “no adventures for people who had brown eyes and brown hair” like Tiffany. And then there’s what happens to a woman who people thought was a witch (she was an old woman who was thrown out of her house at the peak of winter which she did not survive).

Terry Pratchett has created a remarkable little girl, one who I suspect may well become one of my all time favorite heroines.

Tiffany is a little girl who THINKS. She sees the logical inconsistency in someone who could “magic away a boy and a whole horse” being unable to “magic away the men who came for her.” She has a sense of quietness about her which is a thing of ferocity. And she engages with the world, and thinks about it in ways that most people usually don’t. And through it all she sounds and feels like a nine-year old, though a highly unusual nine-year-old.

the wee free men terry pratchettI’m in love with the way Pratchett weaves little bits of philosophy and life-thoughts through the length and breadth of his story (the whole “Second Thoughts” bit reminded me of how watching your thoughts is an actual method taught in some of the meditation practices). Here’s one conclusion that Tiffany keeps circling back to that I think is true for life in general:

That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.

Oh, and I definitely love this definition of magic that is offered in the story:

“Ah weel,” said Rob Anybody. “What’s magic, eh? Just wavin’ a stick an’ sayin’ a few wee magical words. An’ what’s so clever aboot that, eh? But lookin’ at things, really lookin’ at ‘em, and then workin’ ‘em oout, now, that’s a real skill.”

“Aye, it is,” said William the gonnagle, to Tiffany’s surprise. “Ye used yer eyes and used yer heid. That’s what a real hag does. The magicking is just there for advertisin’.”

Then there’s the way silence, and listening is brought up over and again. Oh, I love the way silence is celebrated in this story, and the way its depths are plumbed, and the way it’s shown to be a thing of such SOLIDITY and STRENGTH in this book. From one of my many favorite parts of this book (I could probably quote the whole of it):

She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards and listen to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up onto the downs somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t enough time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

There is such humor in this book, a lot of it of the laugh-out-loud variety, especially when the Nac Mac Feegle aka the “Wee Free Men” who are incidentally about six inches high, call humans “bigjobs,” and Tiffany their “hag,” come into the picture. There’s also a gentle subversion of what is accepted as the normal—be it in the real world or in the fictional world—that goes on in the story. And so here is a bit that had me chuckling:

“Anyway, you don’t have to have a witch ancestor to be a witch. It helps, of course, because of heredity.”

“You mean like having talents?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her brow.

“Partly, I suppose,” said Miss Tick. “But I was thinking of pointy hats, for example. If you had a godmother who can pass on her pointy hat to you, that saves a great deal of expense. They are incredibly hard to come by, especially ones strong enough to withstand falling farmhouses.”

The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. He likes scrambling things up, and putting them together in ways that they are generally not. He plays ever so slightly with the way the “ordinary” works to stretch it into the extra-ordinary.

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I am so, so glad that Ana’s review made me seek these books out.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer To The Crown

I’m not sure I see the similarities between Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In Cho’s book, as in Clarke’s, magic is a part of the 19th-ish century British society, but unlike most fantasies those with magic are not of the ruling clan. That is to say that the governing and the running of the country is left in the hands of a government which is decidedly un-magical. Magic is treated as just another society, like horticulturists (I have no idea why that and no other popped up in my mind). And that’s as far as the parallels exist—but then again, since I read Clarke’s behemoth of a book early last year, it’s possible my memory’s a little rusty!

As the story begins we find that the magic in Britain has been slowly dwindling for some time. Nobody knows why but the crisis reaches its head when a man of African origin, Zacharias Whyte, becomes the Sorcerer Royale. Whispers and rumors imply that it is Zacharias’s blackness that has resulted in this magical malady.

sorcerer_front mech.inddWomen of course are completely forbidden to do any sort of magic—their frames being thought of as too frail to support the travails of “magicking.” Indeed, the very idea of a woman doing magic is held in disdain:

Nothing disgusted a thaumaturge so much as a witch. Shameless, impudent, meddling females, who presumed to set at naught the Society’s prohibition on women’s magic, and duped the common people with their potions and cantrips!

(Did you know there was a word called cantrip? Or prolix? Or directoire? Or geas? Cho’s use of these old words very much evoke the sense of another era)

Enter Prunella Gentleman who’s more than ready to challenge everyone’s notions of female magic, left, right and center. It’s not that she sets out to do this—if anything she realizes that the best option available to her is to marry. She’s part of a school whose express purpose is teaching women how NOT to do magic:

It was a curious contradiction that even as the rest of England languished for want of magic, the school was afflicted with more than it knew what to do with. Being a school for gentlewitches, it did not, of course, instruct its students in practical thaumaturgy. Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint.

But who she is cannot be stamped out of Prunella, as Zacharias soon realizes, vigorous attempts to the contrary. Prunella is resourceful, and unapologetically ambitious. And her ambitiousness is a thing of joy. She is the yang to Zacharias’s yin (yes, there’s some delicious gender flipping in the story), and she simply steals all the scenes in which she features.

One of my favorite scenes is where Prunella is doing a particularly dangerous piece of magic and Zacharias is trying to be noble, urging Prunella to make a run for it:

“Go,” he said urgently. “Wake the servants, and get out of the building. I will contain them.” He had no notion how he would do it, but at least he could try to limit the damage, even if he were destroyed in the attempt.

Prunella was not at all grateful for this display of nobility, however.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said crossly. “Why do not you go, and take the servants with you?” She wrested herself from Zacharias’s grasp. . . “There is nothing to be alarmed about, only I wish you would go back to bed, and not trouble yourself about my business. I cannot deal with the treasures in your presence. It would be very improper!”

Prunella’s brown (she’s of Indian origin), and Zacharias is black, brought up by a white couple. Both these characteristics are very much a thing of the story. By which I mean that while the color of our protagonists’ skin leads to them being subjected to all sorts of prejudices by the rest of the society, who they are portrayed as is so much more than just their brownness or blackness.

Then there’s Mak Genggang, a Malay witch I think, who is an old, wily hag, cackling away in glory while everyone around her fumbles and stumbles! I love all the scenes with her too! And the ones with Rollo as well! Oh and the whole of the “epic battle” while all the gentlemen keep nattering about! What am I talking about? Oh, just go read the book, and find out yourself!