Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: "The Royal Sorceress"

The Royal Sorceress by Chris Nuttall takes place in Britain in the 1830s, but not the Britain of our world. In the previous century, magic was discovered and scientifically categorized, allowing for Great Britain to crush the American Revolution and grow even more powerful than it did historically. Airships have begun to fill the sky, but the industrializing cities teem with millions ground underfoot by poverty and an indifferent if not abusive ruling class.

It's in this environment that young Gwendolyn Crichton, frustrated with the limitations imposed on her by her gender, is given the extraordinarily rare opportunity to be apprenticed to Britain's royal sorcerer. But at the same time, a renegade magician bent on revolution is returning to Britain...

Full disclosure: Chris and I were both longtime members of the alternate-history message-board I've referenced here before and we agreed on a review-for-review swap, his novel for my Kindle-published short stories. However, that doesn't mean I'm going to go any easier on him than I go on the fellow members of my writing groups. Here goes...

For starters, it's a quick, fun read. The story is well-plotted and tied together nicely. Things start out fast--within the first seven pages, Gwen becomes the sorcerer's apprentice. Chris has a particular talent for chapter endings--they either serve as suspense-building cliffhangers or as means to speed the story along. There are a lot of scenes that are pure fun to read, including a food fight between Gwen and some male apprentices who resent Gwen's presence and several revolutionary happenings in the last half of the book that I'm not even going to hint at lest I spoil them.

Also, Chris manages to do exposition without boring the reader. Although exposition through dialogue is frowned on (the infamous "As You Know, Bob" from the Turkey City Lexicon), Gwen's session with a tutor does a good job explaining just how magic was used to defeat the American Revolution.

There are also some shout-outs to other books I enjoyed. One of the supporting characters is none other than Mycroft Holmes and his more famous younger brother and his brother's assistant appear but aren't named. We also meet Irene Adler at one point. There's also a reference to the Draka novels, in particular an early model breech-loading rifle that went largely unused in our history but was used by the proto-Draka to defeat and enslave the native Africans in the Draka timeline.

However, the book does have its flaws. Some of his sentences are a bit too wordy, although it might be my journalism training and consequent disdain for semicolons coming through. Some of the issues I have come up late in the book and I can't really go into detail without risking spoilers, but one character commits a terrorist act without concern for some innocents who would be killed when earlier he'd gone to the trouble of rescuing some children being prostituted. I thought that was out-of-character and even if he couldn't avoid doing what he did, at the very least he should have expressed some misgivings at the time as opposed to later on. Also, a character is revealed to have a magical talent so rare that it's not even confirmed to exist until halfway through the book. That risks the character turning into a Mary Sue, although given the way the scene it's revealed turned out, it wasn't even necessary.

(I've talked with Chris about this and he said there are storyline reasons for this. Hopefully we'll get into this more in later books. After all, according to a talk I had once with Michael Stackpole, flaws in one book can be an opportunity for later stories if the explanation is good enough.)

Furthermore, one reason Britain is ahead of the other powers in terms of magic is because in some other countries, the Inquisition persecutes those with magical talents with a vengeance. In our history, the Inquisition played a large role fighting witch-hysteria and Scotland saw a great deal of witch-hunting. One could argue that the Inquisition might change its tune when faced with real witchcraft, but that doesn't necessarily mean the situation in Britain would be any better.

( idea for a sequel)

Finally, there's a minor character named Bruno Lombardi who is a rather shy younger son of an aristocrat and a fellow pupil of Gwen. I'd have liked some more of his back-story, considering his distinctly non-Anglo-Saxon name. Of course, that's something that can go in a sequel.

Overall, I'd give it an 8 out of 10. Those interested in an excerpt or some behind-the-scenes material can find it here.

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