July 6th, 2003

A Sunday Morning "Catch-Up" Review: Journey To Fusang

William Sanders' Journey To Fusang is a light-hearted alternate history romp. Forget the big picture tales of historical process and wide-screen epics, Sanders is using alternate history to deliver a simple story - a ripping yarn in all but name.

Like many other alternate histories it's a story of a world where Europe never became a dominant world power. Europe has been beaten down by centuries of Mongol domination, leaving it shattered and broken. England is a failing feudal state, selling its people as slaves to pay for its incessent wars. Here, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Years Of Rice And Salt, the Americas are divided between the Moors and the Chinese.

Finn, an Irish bard, has crossed the High King by sleeping with his daughter. He needs to leave the Ireland, fast, and stows away on a ship heading for Tangiers - the crossroads of the world. Things never quite go to plan, and he finds himself sold into slavery and sent off to the Americas. It's a journey that will take him from all but certain death the land of the Mexica to the high plains, via trading posts, camels and dancing girls. He'll meet kite-gliding ninja, Russian invaders and the Chinese secret service before he finally arrives in the fabled city of Fusang.

Sanders' story is a simple one: the journey to a promised land, in this case the Chinese city of Fusang (situated where we'd find Sand Francisco). There's much to criticise about the construction of his counter-factual world, but we can forgive the innacuracies and the fancies - we just need to remember that it's not there to be the heart of the story, it's just another piece of background. What's more important is Finn's journey. And this is pure romp - light hearted and thrilling, with plenty of derring do and action. There are similarites with the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Frasier - the unreliable narrator (in more ways that one), and the role of the crook and conman in larger events.

A fun, light read. Enjoyable.
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A Sunday Lunchtime "Catch-up" Review: Sorcery & Cecilia

One of the first books tamaranth lent me was Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's wonderful Sorcery & Cecilia (or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot), a tale of romance and derring do in an alternate Britain, shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Perhaps the first of the "mannered" fantasies, Sorcery & Cecilia owes much to Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen and the regency romance. Begun as an example of the letter-writing game, where the two writers sent in-character letters to each other, it soon spun into a story with a life of its own - and with a little editing, one of my favourite fantasy novels. Sadly, by the time I discovered it, it was long out of print. But now, with a long anticipated sequel just around the corner, Harcourt has brought out a new hardcover edition.

Kate and Cecilia are cousins, minor gentry from somewhere in the rural part of Essex. While Cecilia has to stay in Essex, Kate is in London, enjoying her debutante season. It's a season that is going to have many consequences for the two girls, as they become embroiled in plots at the heart of The Royal College of Wizards. This is a world where magic works, and where it's become a science - documented in books, and taught by tutors.

When Kate accidently saves the life of a mysterious wizard (by failing to drink some hot chocolate), she finds herself caught up in intrigues and confusion. Meanwhile, back in the country, a girl is bewitching all the young men. As Kate and Cecilia investigate the strange goings-on, they find themselves caught up in secret magic lessons and fake engagements, while still having to take tea with relatives and attend important balls and parties.

Sorcery & Cecilia is a wonderful novel, and one that is virtually impossible to describe without giving away too much of its plot! The letter format is well suited to the plot, as it allows us to see only what the girls see, while helping us to fit the clues together and to work out what is going on - just in time to follow the action. It's a story where the rules of the world (of society, and of magic) are everything, and manners conquer all.

Well worth reading and savouring - preferably slowly, over a nice cup of Earl Grey and with some buttered scones.
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