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Female Magic and the Subversion of Male-Centric Magical Systems: On Sorcerer to the Crown and Uprooted

Over the holiday break I read two books with strikingly similar themes. The first was Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and the second was Naomi Novick’s beloved Uprooted. In both books, a female is discovered to have magical abilities by a male protagonist and taken for training. In both books magic is dominated by males (though Uprooted is less so), and its known structures are those of rigorous training and study, which is typically associated with maleness and male education (think 19th century Oxford). Both Prunella in Sorcerer to the Crown and Agnieszka in Uprooted discover much more natural and female-centric magic, thereby upending dominant structures of male-centric magic systems.


Sorcerer to the CrownBut these narratives are far from equal in how they treat their female protagonists and in how they portray male-female mentor relationships. Sorcerer to the Crown is set in Regency-era Britain, during the Napoleonic wars. It is a light-hearted affair that moves breezily along – think more Gail Carriger than Susanna Clarke. Much of the book deals with the hardships the male protagonist Zacharias endures as a black leader of the traditionally entirely white royal sorcerer’s society. Zacharias inherited the title from the white British man who first bought Zacharias as a baby, then later emancipated and adopted into his family. In the course of his duties, Zacharias discovers a yourng woman with great magical potential and decides to both tutor her and use her as an example of why women should be properly educated in magic instead of forbidden to use it completely, with the goal of revolutionizing magic in England. Prunella accepts Zacharias’s offer, but for her own motives.


Over the course of the novel, Zacharias is exasperated by Prunella and her insistence on society life instead of the rigorous magical study he himself endured and insists she needs. Prunella is after power and security, both magical and societal, by any clever means. She is willful, clever and does things always on her own terms. She knows she has power and is not afraid to use it when needed. Though Zacharias is often frustrated with her as a student, he never belittles her or denigrates her, even if he doesn’t understand her methods. Part of this is probably due to the time period in which the novel takes place – it’s also in some respects a comedy of manners, as these types of novels often are. But still, the fact remains that even though she frustrates him, he treats her with respect and courtsey as both a magican and as a human being. Though their relationship initially starts as one of master and student, Zacharias realizes that she is very much his equal and treats her accordingly.


The exact opposite is true in Naomi Novick’s Uprooted, which is much beloved by readers and frequently held up as a good example of a female-centric narrative. There are several problems with that last statement. Foz Meadows, over at Shattersnipe: Malcontent and Rainbows, has a much more detailed and thorough analysis of the problem, but I’ll do some summary here. The central plot of Uprooted is that a male magician, known only as the Dragon, comes to Agnieszka’s valley every 10 years to take a teenage girl back to his tower for 10 years, at the end of which he releases her, seemingly unharmed. The threat and possibility of sexual violence appears in the first two or three pages and is a significant presence for the first third or so of the book. An attempted assauslt does occur, but not at the Dragon’s hands. In addition to an actual assault, the Dragon treats Agnieszka horribly during her initial mentorship, even when it is discovered she has real magical talent. He denigrates her, calling her ugly and stupid when he’s not outright ignoring her. He is an abusive mentor, yet the author, in the Agnieszka’s voice, jumps through hoop after hoop to explain or excuse his behavior. Again, I’ll direct you to Foz Meadows for a more thorough discussion. The really disappointing thing is that he never really changes over the course of the novel. The fact that he eventually becomes her love interest is even more problematic.


While Prunella’s magic is in part derived from blood magic, something that only females can truly weild in Cho’s world, Agienszka’s is a natural magic that is innate and intuitive. A Baba Yaga-ish figure is her predecessor and the magic she weilds is in part inherited directly from her. Both forms of magic Prunella and Agienszka use directly subvert or exist apart from the male-centric magic systems the novels set up. And both women become extremely powerful outside of these systems, on their own terms. I’m not well-read enough in the fantasy genre to say that this is a refreshing, well-needed thing; I’m sure there are other novels that do this as well (please tell me in the comments!). I just happened to read these two back-to-back and the similarity was striking. It’s such a shame that Uprooted couldn’t leave behind the very tired and harmful trope where an otherwise BA female character falls for a (really old) man who starts off as abusive and never really changes his ways or realizes what an asshole he is.

High-Brow Magazine Culture

My addiction for all things bookish and papery has taken on a new form recently: high-brow magazines. These magazines are distinctive for their form, materials, and frequency of publication. Many call themselves “journals,” or “quarterlies,” but they still fall in the magazine category. The seduction began with the large, anti-glossy creativity/lifestyle magazine, The Great Discontent (though I’m still looking for the connection between the content and the title (I don’t have issue #1)). The title was the first draw, but the large, creamy, matte pages with perfect margins and lovely typography made the sale.

The Great DisconentThe Great Disconent


















Each issue has variable covers, featuring an artist interviewed in the issue. There were women! On the cover! In the pages! The issues are thematic focusing on specific aspects of a creative life/process, but reading across two different issues, the content felt too similar to be really be thematically different. I still enjoyed it quite a bit and am anxious for the next issue to come out this March. It looks like they’re doing good on my one criticism: it felt like there needed to be more artists of color present in the magazine as a whole. The 4th issue features Leon Bridges, a black soul/gospel musician from Texas, on the cover.

I was attracted to the idea that this was the kind of magazine the adult I wanted to be would read, toting around in a messenger bag to read on the bus or in coffee shops. I felt like that adult for a while, and thus a new addiction was born. The next thing to catch my eye was Collective Quarterly’s 3rd issue, titled Mad River. Again the title caught my eye, but it was the cover that really drew me to it. It’s an overhead shot of a tumultuous river in beautiful shades of blues and greens. It took me more than a month to finally buy it. It was in the men’s interest section of my local B&N, so I wasn’t sure I was its target audience. I looked through it several times over that month. It kept calling to me, demanding that I own it. When I finally brought it home, I stuck it on my shelf and haven’t really looked at it since. I know it’s there, and I can pick it up at any time, but the ownership of the object was more important that the object itself (book collectors know this feeling quite well). Quarterly Collective is smaller in format than TGD, but uses the same type of matte, recycled, thick, creamy paper that I have come to associate with high-brow magazines. The photography in Mad River is stunning and the matte printing suits it incredibly well.

Collective Quarterly     MadRiver_cover    Collective Quarterly #4

The 3rd issue of Collective Quarterly, this time about Topa Topa, an area along the central coast of California is doing the same thing. The cover captures one of my favorite moments in a sunset: the transition from pink to blue after the sun has sunk down below the horizon. I feel an intense need to own this issue, and I eventually probably will. Collective Quarterly explores a geographical area each issue and the people and industry that call it home, with a focus on creativity. Mad River Valley is in the wilds of Vermont and as such explores a topography rich with imagination and creativity. After reading the issue, I sincerely wanted to visit, bringing with me my Penguin copy of H.P. Lovecraft. (Not.)

Oak Nordic Magazine

Oak: The Nordic Journal is one of my latest acquisitions. It’s about the same size as TGD, with the same matte pages and gorgeous photography. It fits more squarely in the lifestyle category but still focuses on people who lead creative lives in some respect. Iceland has become the new Ireland for me, meaning it’s become a place I imagine vividly and want to visit someday. Both countries hold a certain wild, imaginative place in my creative mind and as such, I project many fantasies onto them. If there’s a similar magazine about Irish lifestyle available in the US, I’d totally buy it (I’m sure there must be). I bought this one solely because of its beautiful photography of Nordic landscapes.

Two other samples of high-brow magazines I’ve bought are Future Perfect, which is a much more standard magazine dressed up in recycled matte paper with conventional sections and a few more ads (all three magazines previously mentioned keep ads to a bare minimum and in one location, not cluttered all over the pages). The other is Benji Knewman, a dual language English/Latvian lifestyle/culture quarterly. This one has mostly matte paper with glossy sections for some of the artwork. It’s a collection of short essays/art/photography presentations that are quick, relatively interesting reads. A few felt a bit too pop-culture-riff shallow, but I haven’t read all of the content yet. Oddly enough, I just realized that all of the magazines I’ve bought mentioned here were in their 3rd volume of publication. All were bought in a neighborhood Barnes & Noble, which says something for the selection in B&N’s magazine section (and yet they still don’t carry Bookforum).  I discovered a new one just today, Trouvé which also focuses on aspects of the creative life. I’m beginning to see a trend here: the format of the magazine elevates it above all the glossy, cheap-looking throw-aways, thereby elevating the kind of life these magazines focus on. The price elevates it as well, as most of these magazines are at least $15-25 USD. All of the magazines are independent as well. The format, content, and price indicate that the target audience for these publications is not the average reader; they are for connoisseurs, those who privilege beauty of form and content and for the type of people already featured within the magazine’s pages. I’m not a creative lifestyle person; I’m just a sucker who stretches her budget because I can’t help myself sometimes. It’s hard to have taste when you’re poor.

For an added treat, here are a couple of websites to feed your new addiction:

Creative Boom
Mag Culture (returning sometime this month with a better selection)

Holiday Bookish Gifts 2015

56303-Book-Christmas-TreeIt’s that time of year again. The time where I stress about not having enough money to buy presents for everyone while simultaneously resisting the temptation to use those big discounts on something I’ve been wanting for ages. This year I decided to make a bunch of my presents, as I’ve just got really into knitting. Yarn still costs money though (especially the yarn I like to use), so it’s still only a one-item-per-person kind of thing. Below are some bookish gifts I wish I could both give and receive. Happy holidays everyone!

lifestyle_letscoloramerica_pirastaFor the Kids: United States wall art for kids to color. What better way to help little ones learn their states than by having them color in fun, wacky illustrations to go along with each state? And when they’re done, they’ll have a beautiful hand colored map to hang in their room. Plus, it’ll keep them busy (and quiet) for hours. There’s more options available than just the US map as well. Available on The Gromet, $32.





23301545For Everyone: Neil Gaiman is an amazing and surprisingly proliferate writer across multiple genres. His latest effort, just in time for holiday gift giving, is a gorgeous revision of the sleeping beauty fairy tale titled The Sleeper and the Spindle. With a beautiful cover and lush illustration from Chris Riddell, this is an excellent gift for any book lover, whether they’re 6 or 56. Buy it from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound or even better, at your local independent bookstore.

For the Writer: I’ve used many different notebooks, journals, and paper pads over the years, falling in love with each one for various reasons. My current timthumbfavorite notebook is the Zequenz 360 Roll Up Journal in a lovely shade of red. The cover and binding is flexible and the pages are smooth and creamy, like Clairefontaine. My fountain pen glides across the surface with no streaking. The journal comes with a handy magnetic bookmark so you never loose your place and this journal is good for tough travel.  My local bookstore carries this in stock, but you can order it online too at for about $21.

If they’re really special to you, add the Lamy Safari fountain pen to the gift. It’s an inexpensive but good quality fountain pen with a nice nib, smooth writing, and a comfortable weight that won’t tire their hand.


25489625For the Reader: This is my favorite part. There are a few specific genre recommendations I’ll make but there’s one book I think everyone should read this year: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent Between the World and Me. Toni Morrison calls it required reading on the jacket and it is a truly powerful look at race in America. Everyone needs to read this book.

24000166Year-end holidays are not always a pleasant thing for many people. Family (or lack thereof) can be stressful and/or depressing, money can be tight and amidst the consumerist shopping craze, it can be hard to remember what this time of year is supposed to be about (if there’s actually even a consensus about that). For the person who is struggling this season, who might be looking for answers that they can’t seem to find anywhere else, for those who need a fresh view on their lives, give them Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project. Part literary essay, part personal narrative, part travelogue, Crispin’s honest and searching little book might just give them the boost they need to make it through.


For the editions collector, I came across one of the most beautiful packagings for the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe I’ve ever seen while browsing my local bookstore. It’s a British edition, so it may be a bit of work to find, but the fully cloth-bound, gilt-spined and slip-cased edition of the master of American gothic literature will be well worth the effort (I found one on Ebay). The price is rather reasonable as well at about $36 USD. (The publisher has a series of these editions that includes H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes!)

il_570xN.847582076_bzmkAnd for the truly nerdy, nothing beats the dewy decimal system to keep you warm and cozy. Etsy is a great place to find unique, bookish gifts. This scarf is sure to help you out as you navigate the depths of the library on these chilly Winter evenings.







It’s Time for Some Hocus Pocus



It’s October, my favorite month of the year. The leaves are turning, there’s a delicious chill in the air, and I have every excuse to watch my favorite witchy sisters! They’ve definitely put a spell on me over the past two decades since I first met them. Summer was a bit of a blur of video gaming and….more video gaming. It was sad, really. I’ve read a few books, of course (I’m 4 books ahead of my GoodReads challenge still), but I’ve been gaming way too much by my own standards. So in the chill Fall air, I decided to put the controller down and picked up a pair of knitting needles instead!  Yes, that’s right, I’ve finally learned to knit and replaced one massive time consuming activity with another, one expensive addiction (books) with another (yarn). But hey, at the end of the knitting project there is a tangible thing that I have made and can wear, give away, or if I get really good, sell. So, knitting is highly productive in a way that gaming and reading are not. I know we can quibble about the statement that reading isn’t productive; I think it’s a very productive pastime – for your mind, anyway. Knitting produces an actual thing, which for someone who hasn’t produced much of anything lately is a welcome investment of time.

As seen on

As seen on

I’m not good enough yet that I can knit and read, but I’ll get there I’m sure. So far I’ve only made a kid size scarf (with a few dropped stitches/holes in it) and a scarf for myself – well, that’s almost done. My next project is the Baker Street Scarf modeled here by the venerable Neil freaking Gaiman. The hubby getsAstral Yarn n Hydra this one, though I may or may not steal it from him. I chose a beautiful aplaca/merino/tencel blend yarn from Astral Yarn Co. in a gorgeous dark grey that almost looks silver. It’s super soft and will be very warm.  (I just realized the yarn color is called Hydra. The nerd references with this scarf keep getting better and better!)

My current scarf that’s almost done is in a lovely mustard yellow and has been very easy to knit, though there are a few large cluster-fucks of yarn here and there. Oh well. You knit, you learn. One of the first things I did before setting needle to yarn was, of course, to check out a ton of knitting books from the library. Some were definitely more useful than others for a beginning knitter, as not all beginning knitting books are equal. I found, oddly enough, that for me to really get how the stitch worked, I need a book with pictures of human hands holding the needles and yarn. Illustration wouldn’t cut it for me. The Online Movie Book Guides book Complete Knitting Skills by Debbie Tomkies worked really well for me, and I didn’t even have to use the videos!

As for what I’ve been reading, I’ve straight up devoured a few hard SF books – a sub-genre I never thought I’d 22816087be into. It started with Neal Stephenson’s excellent Seveneves, which starts out as an Apollo 13-like nail-biting survival story in space and ends on an entirely different note with a story of humanity’s exploration of a new Earth (that’s a bit misleading, just read the book – you’ll see what I mean). I enjoyed the fist half of the book much more than the second as the pacing was stronger, the characters more interesting, and the writing stronger and more grounded. Stephenson is a master storyteller and this book is no different. From a layperson’s perspective, the science is fascinating and part of the reason for that is Stephenson’s way of writing it. This is the first book I’ve read of his, even though I have Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver on my shelf. I’ve started the latter and am enjoying it quite a bit.

20518872I followed Seveneves up with Cixin Liu’s hard math thriller The Three Body Problem and inhaled its sequel The Dark Forest as soon as it came out. Fortunately, since these are already out in China and have been translated recently, the third book will come out in January, instead of a whole year wait. The pacing of both of these books is quite a bit slower and more contemplative than something like Seveneves, but no less thrilling in many respects. Liu’s books ask and look at the question of how humanity will react upon learning that it’s not the only intelligent species in the universe. His answers are fascinating. While the first book is in many respects a hard math SF novel, the second is a character study and a look at humanity’s response to an impending invasion from a uniquely Chinese perspective. I sincerely hope Liu gets a wider readership in the US and elsewhere from these books; he deserves it.

I also read Lauren Groff’s newest novel, Fates and Furies and Aliette de Bodard’s wonderful House of Shattered WingsFates and Furies is the portrait of a marriage from both sides and while her prose was beautiful and a joy to read, the story itself was less than stellar. The dual perspectives, the Greek Chorus-style asides and its overall tragic (in the ancient Greek tragedy sense of the term) structure were interesting, but not enough for me to overlook relatively bland characters and Groff’s somewhat trite insights into one half of a creative marriage.

de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings on the other hand was a fairly engrossing reimagining of Miltonian 24581979angel mythos. In a Paris destroyed by the Great War (not that Great War), houses built on Angel magic vie for power and its ever diminishing source: Fallen magic. When angels are cast out of the great City, they land on earth and must figure out how to use and control the remnants of power that remain to them, which slowly leeches away as they age on earth. If the newly Fallen aren’t butchered for their blood and bones by roving gangs to create magical relics with immense power first, they can be adopted into one of the great houses and learn how to be Fallen in a destroyed world. Enter Isabelle, a newly Fallen, and Phillipe a butcher for a gang as well as a mysterious entity in the center of Fallen territory. What is he and where does his unknown magic come from? We get to hear a variety of voices in this novel that explores power dynamics and the effects of colonization on both the colonizers and the colonized. This is a consistent theme in de Bodard’s body of work. Here she seems to have immense fun with angel mythology while telling a dark, affecting story.

I have a large TBR pile of course, but as it’s Halloween month (we do month-long Halloween things in my house) Hocus PocusThe WitchesThe Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, and the new Goosebumps movie with Jack Black et al. are my entertainment for the month!




Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

MaplecroftIn Maplecroft, Cherie Priest, best known for her Boneshaker steampunk books, uses the infamous Lizzie Borden murders to tell a deliciously creepy, truly Lovecraftian story of horror. Set in Fall River, MA, Lizzie Borden and her invalid sister Emma are trying to live a quiet life out of public eye after Lizzie’s very public trial for the murder of her father and step-mother. Although she was acquitted in the eyes of the law, public sentiment disagrees and she and her sister are the town’s pariahs. Only the good doctor Owen Seabury remains on friendly terms, as he sees to Emma’s health on a regular basis.

Emma and Lizzie share a dark secret, one that threatens to overwhelm them and everyone in their town. When people start to fall prey to a mysterious illness, with symptoms the sisters and the doctor have seen before, will they be able to overcome their silence and save those they hold most dear, or will an unnamed threat from the sea conquer the sisters and their sleepy little town?

Multiple perspectives allow for a wider view of what’s going on in Fall River and later, the wider countryside. The novel feels like found documentation at times, and Dr. Seabury at least is keeping his record of the events for posterity’s sake. The focus however, is kept tightly to the sisters and those in direct contact with them. There are a few excerpts from left field and it would have been interesting to see the events from the perspective of some of Fall River’s other residents as events reached their thunderous conclusions.

The term “Lovecraftian” seems to get attached to anything that is remotely weird and involves the sea, often with no reason for it to be attached (see Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum, which was a hot mess). Yet there was no mention of Lovecraft anywhere in the blurbs on the book, which I found surprising. I’ve read enough Lovecraft to know generally what his particular brand of horror is about and Maplecroft fits the bill. Mysterious illnesses, weird creatures lurking in the night, an unnamed terror from the sea, science reaching its limits of understanding – it’s all there. I finished the book very late at night with the windows wide open to the darkness beyond. At one point, I had to get up and close the windows and draw the blinds as the book’s creepiness sunk deep into my psyche. Priest’s brand of horror may not be for everyone, the same as Lovecraft isn’t for everyone. I, however, loved this deliciously creepy and hair-raising read. As it seems to be the first in a series, I look forward to more of the Borden dispatches.