Book reviews: fiction from Zen Cho, China Miéville and Nick Hornby
Magic and mayhem in Regency England, a puzzling sci-fi mystery, and a new version of the modern classic About a Boy
Sorcerer to the Crown
by Zen Cho (read by Jenny Sterling)
Avid Audio (audiobook)
Having self-published her debut, a historical romance titled The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Malaysian-born Zen Cho has gone “legit” with the first part of a trilogy set in Regency England. As her past publications also include an edition of Malaysian cyberpunk stories, it comes as little surprise that history rubs shoulders with fantasy, horror and more than a hint of magic. This is explicitly the domain of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, England’s exclusive and, it turns out, bigoted society of wizards. When Zacharias Wythe becomes Sorcerer Royal, this former slave is treated like, well, a former slave. Little wonder he joins forces with the nicely named Prunella Gentleman (not only a woman but half-Indian), causing all manner of anti-establishment chaos in the process. If the summary sounds dry, the writing and plotting is anything but. There are cheeky jokes at Britain’s present racial immaturity (the unpleasant Mr Midsomer hints at the whiter-than-white TV show Midsomer Murders), some zesty dialogue, and complex relationships reflecting the fraught politics. Jenny Sterlin reads with an attractive, deep-throated timbre that, frankly, I could listen to all week. If she sometimes sounds a little stiff, the sheer sonorousness of her tones more than compensates. I hope both reunite for part two.
by China Miéville (read by Matthew Frow)
Pan MacMillan (audiobook)
As audiobooks go, The Census-Taker sounds like one of the less demanding. Clocking in at a whisper over four hours, it feels like a morning or afternoon’s listen at most. But as this is China Miéville (cyberpunk turned Kafkaesque conspirator turned science fiction yarnster), you may need several repeats to work out what exactly you have just heard. At the centre is a boy, of indeterminate age and uncertain name, whose first act is to scream that one of his parents has killed the other. Commonsense favours his father, a volatile near-psychopath with occult powers, as the culprit, but the perpetrator could just as easily be his enigmatic mother. Such haziness extends to the prose which shifts tenses, moves from “you”’ to “I” in the blink of the latter, and messes gleefully with your narrative expectations. It is a smart trick. On the one hand, we have a bleak but physically inescapable world, on the other utter chaos as a filter: the boy’s confusions and Miéville’s unstable if attractively purple prose. Matthew Frow’s light, sprightly voice sounds as close to the boy as anyone could I suppose, and proves supple enough for the swerves of perspective and story. But listen closely, and perhaps, have the text at hand.
About a Boy
by Nick Hornby (read by Stephen Mangan)
Penguin Books (audiobook)
About a Boy was a massive hit for British novelist Nick Hornby back in 1998. Not only did it sell over a million copies, it was later adapted both for the movies (with Hugh Grant in the lead) and television. Stephen Mangan’s reading of this cross-generational novel of dysfunction and love is now available to download. Mangan is ideal as Will Freeman, whose father’s one hit song (a Christmas pop standard) has enabled him to lead a feckless life of music, drugs and no-strings-attached romantic affairs. The setting (1993) and title nod towards darker melodies: specifically, Nirvana and their early masterpiece About a Girl. This is personified by the melancholy Fiona, whom Will meets after lying his way into a single parents’ group (pretending parenthood helps him pick up women). He also befriends her son Marcus, a reserved if not quite disaffected teen. The novel follows their twin adventures with the culture and people around them. For Marcus, it’s Kurt Cobain obsessive Ellie; Will falls for bona fide single mum, Rachel. Mangan has Will’s (initial) sarcastic twang down to a tee, but knows how to lighten the tone as his emotional journey unravels amusingly, if a little sentimentally. He is good at Marcus and impressive as Fiona, who I liked best of all.