Sunday, July 31, 2016

Diverse Detective Fiction

When I'm super busy or life is extra stressful, I tend to pick up an Agatha Christie rather than one of my many intense fantasy novels. They're quick, engaging, and don't generally destroy my emotions (a plus when life itself is busy destroying said emotions). Perfect light reading.

Yet when I look at my piles of detective novels, there's something very disappointing about them. They're all set primarily in Europe or America. Every detective is white. 

I want my pile of cozy mysteries to include detectives who aren't almost universally white men. After all, if we can have themed mysteries like Quilting Mysteries and Cat Mysteries and Maple Syrup Mysteries (yes really), then surely we can also have More Representative of The World We Live In Mysteries too?

So on Twitter, I asked if anyone had recommendations for more (specifically: racially) diverse mysteries.

And Twitter delivered. Here's some of the recommendations I got: many thanks to @Bina_ReadThis, @hemapen especially! If you've read any of these, please let me know what you thought!


1. The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1) by Tarquin Hall

The portly Vish Puri is India’s most accomplished detective, at least in his own estimation, and is also the hero of an irresistible new mystery series set in hot, dusty Delhi. Puri’s detective skills are old-fashioned in a Sherlock Holmesian way and a little out of sync with the tempo of the modern city, but Puri is clever and his methods work.

The Case of the Missing Servant shows Puri (“Chubby” to his friends) and his wonderfully nicknamed employees (among them, Handbrake, Flush, and Handcream) hired for two investigations. The first is into the background of a man surprisingly willing to wed a woman her father considers unmarriageable, and the second is into the disappearance six months earlier of a servant to a prominent Punjabi lawyer, a young woman known only as Mary.

The Most Private Investigator novels offer a delicious combination of ingenious stories, brilliant writing, sharp wit, and a vivid, unsentimental picture of contemporary India. And from the first to the last page run an affectionate humour and intelligent insights into both the subtleties of Indian culture and the mysteries of human behaviour.

2. The Salaryman's Wife (Rei Shimura#1) by Sujata Massey

Japanese-American Rei Shimura is a 27-year-old English teacher living in one of Tokyo's seediest neighborhoods. She doesn't make much money, but she wouldn't go back home to California even if she had a free ticket (which, thanks to her parents, she does.) Her independence is threatened however, when a getaway to an ancient castle town is marred by murder.

Rei is the first to find the beautiful wife of a high-powered businessman, dead in the snow. Taking charge, as usual, Rei searches for clues by crashing a funeral, posing as a bar-girl, and somehow ending up pursued by police and paparazzi alike. In the meantime, she manages to piece together a strange, ever-changing puzzle—one that is built on lies and held together by years of sex and deception.

3. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #1) by Alexander McCall Smith

Wayward daughters, missing husbands, philandering partners, curious conmen - If you've got a problem, and no one else can help you, then pay a visit to Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only - and finest - female private detective, and her assistant, Mma Makutsi. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she's got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. And Precious is going to need them all as she sets out on a series of cases that tumbles our heroine into a hotbed of strange situations and more than a little danger...

4. Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley

In Los Angeles of the late 1940s, Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran, has just been fired from his job at a defense plant. Easy is drinking in a friend's bar, wondering how he'll meet his mortgage, when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Monet, a blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.


5. Blanche on the Lam (Blanche White #1) by Barbara Neely

Blanche White lends a refreshing African-American, female twist to the mystery tradition, as she turns from domestic worker to insightful--if reluctant--sleuth. A middle-aged housekeeper with a strong sense of humor, Blanche becomes an unlikely yet ingenious sleuth when murder disrupts the wealthy household of her employers.


6. Summer of the Big Bachi (Mas Arai #1) by Naomi Hirahara

In the foothills of Pasadena, Mas Arai is just another Japanese-American gardener, his lawnmower blades clean and sharp, his truck carefully tuned. But while Mas keeps lawns neatly trimmed, his own life has gone to seed. His wife is dead. And his livelihood is falling into the hands of the men he once hired by the day. For Mas, a life of sin is catching up to him. And now bachi—the spirit of retribution—is knocking on his door.

It begins when a stranger comes around, asking questions about a nurseryman who once lived in Hiroshima, a man known as Joji Haneda. By the end of the summer, Joji will be dead and Mas’s own life will be in danger. For while Mas was building a life on the edge of the American dream, he has kept powerful secrets: about three friends long ago, about two lives entwined, and about what really happened when the bomb fell on Hiroshima in August 1945.

A spellbinding mystery played out from war-torn Japan to the rich tidewaters of L.A.’s multicultural landscape, this stunning debut novel weaves a powerful tale of family, loyalty, and the price of both survival and forgiveness.


7. Shinju (Sano Ichiro #1) by Laura Joh Rowland

When beautiful, wealthy Yukiko and low-born artist Noriyoshi are found drowned together in a shinju, or ritual double suicide, everyone believes the culprit was forbidden love. Everyone but newly appointed yoriki Sano Ichiro.

Despite the official verdict and warnings from his superiors, the shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People suspects the deaths weren't just a tragedy; they were murder. Risking his family's good name and his own life, Sano will search for a killer across every level of society determined to find answers to a mystery no one wants solved. No one but Sano...

These recs are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Perhaps in the future I'll make some more specific lists of detective novels. This list is a big mix of racially diverse books, I'd love to break it down into more categories with more recs of course! Some ideas: detective novels by PoC authors, detective novels set in non-Western countries with local detectives, detective novels set in Western countries with PoC leads, etc. Can you tell I'm super excited?!

And I haven't even said anything about other axes of diversity than race--we need disabled detectives, LGBTQIA detectives too just to give a few examples!

I found this great list of detective novels with PoC leads:
Diverse Mysteries: Because People of Color Solve Mysteries Too (great title!).

Finally, The Book Smugglers tweeted a link to a Goodreads group focused on the sub-genre of Lesbian Mysteries!

What are your favorite diverse detective novels?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Writing Racism: Thoughts After Reading Sorcerer To the Crown by Zen Cho

It's funny how you don't realize you've been missing a thing until you actually GET it, you know?

Oftentimes, when I read books with PoC characters in a predominantly white society which have been written by white authors, I feel something is "off" about them, but can't always put it into words.  Even when at a surface level it seems okay, something is just missing that I know to be true in my experiences.

Recently I read Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown and realized what it was I keep missing. Microaggressions.

That's too simplistic an answer. Let's start from the beginning.

In my experience, there are levels of awareness to marginalized experience. Here, I'm talking about racism specifically. Level One is Racism Is Bad. No, scratch that. Level One is Racism Exists (sad that some people aren't even at this level).

Level Two: Racism is Bad
Level Three: Racism is Everywhere
Level Four: Racism is Integrated In Our Society
Level Five: Even Good People Can Be Racist
Level Six: We Need To Believe Actual Marginalized People
Level Seven: Microaggressions Exist
Level Eight: Non Marginalized People Need To Sit Down And Let Marginalized People Lead The Conversation
etc. Actually I'm getting a bit hazy on the ordering here but this will do.

Those of us who are lucky enough to experience racism firsthand whiz past this shit because our lives ARE the marginalized experience. Of course, that's not to say that if a marginalized person writes a book with racism that said book represents is THE ONE TRUE EXPERIENCE or anything.

What I tend to see in books written by non-marginalized people is between Level 2 to Level 4 awareness.

I see books include a character of color who is shown to face major aggressions--people outright claiming they're lesser or incapable, being called slurs, pointedly ignored, bullied, beaten up, etc. I see the main character--nearly always white--recognize their true humanity and indignantly can't understand why everyone else treats them different. They become friends and the main character learns about racism and is horrified. Maybe the main character shouts down a bully or rants about the unfairness of society.

Okay, fine--glad the book shows at least this amount of basic awareness. These kinds of racist acts are of course real, of course experienced by many of us, and of course affect the way we move through society. But these are very much performative, intentional racist acts. That's only one facet of racism. Having ONLY the intentional type of racism present--especially if only "bad guys" demonstrate it--is showing only a small part of our experiences. This is really the most basic form of racism. 

There's another--inherent, insidious, tightly bound even within the breasts of people who consider themselves aware. This is inherent bias, this is unconscious aversion, this is unintentional harm. Yes, even "good" people can be racist. Even your friend can harbor a subconscious belief that you are somehow lesser. Even your advocates can be disinclined to listen to you because their voice is echoed back to them in confirmation again and again and again while yours is small and alone.

Where's the plethora of tiny needles that prick daily from not just your enemies, but also your friends? These are microaggressions. In many ways they affect my life even more than those idiots who occasionally yell that I should go back where I came from. The friend who casually asks offensive questions and doesn't get why I'm withdrawn afterwards is not as easy to dismiss as the random dude shouting his head off on the sidewalk.

Books by non-marginalized authors rarely show that good people, people on YOUR side, can harbor racist thoughts and beliefs. If they do, they usually end up redeemed in some way by the end--they understand that black people are just as human as they are and POOF! Problem solved! Everyone's happy! Of course it doesn't work that way. There isn't an internal switch which you can just flip and suddenly be 100% aware.

I dislike when it feels that the author is just using the character of color as a vehicle to showcase how bad the Bad Guys are. These are the Bad Guys, Reader! Look, they're racist! How horrible!

Even worse, when a book uses the character of color as a vehicle to showcase the main character's Goodness. Look, Reader, even though the entire society she's grown up in says these people are bad, she doesn't believe a word of it! Look how nice she is to the character of color! How wonderful!

When universally the Good people show no racism and the Bad people show buckets of it, we have a problem, and that problem is that it's not very realistic. It doesn't ring true. Not all my friends "get" racism, and not all my (fortunately, rather few) enemies are horrific racists. If you haven't grown up with it, you're GOING to make mistakes. You're going to say hurtful things. Even if you're a Good Guy.

Zen Cho's novel has two main characters of color whose experiences ring beautifully true to my ear. Zacharias and Prunella don't just have overt, violent acts of racism to handle, but also insidious, harmful pricks from friends and enemies alike.

The mentor Sir Stephan is an advocate for Zacharias his whole life, despite the difficulty of convincing a very white, powerful group that a black man is equally--even MORE--competent than they. Yet he is not perfect. He sees magical potential in the boy Zacharias and buys him from a slave ship--but doesn't buy his parents, on the same slave ship. Imagine growing up under the tutelage of such a mentor, the conflicting feelings you would have for him. Cho explicitly shows this with the quote:

It had been impossible to ask these questions of Sir Stephen or Lady Wythe, whose affection could not be doubted. That Zacharias's own love for them was leavened with anger was best left unsaid; he tried not to know it himself.

For despite his many good qualities, it doesn't appear the mentor really ever thinks deeply about his early action during his life.

Similarily, Prunella's guardian and boss seems to appreciate her, but is quick to demote her upon the unfounded complaint of a wealthy, white woman. In her mind, Prunella deserves the servant's quarters--after all, she's not really English.

Other examples in the book abound, such as Lady Wythe's indignation at any overt slight paid to Zacharias, while he himself merely continues on with the weary knowledge that such a slight was not the first, will not be the last, and the pricks of a thousand more left unsaid are his burden to carry.

The ease with which the other magicians accept a violent, horrific plot to remove Zacharias from his position of power is bourne from their internal belief that he is somehow lesser, undeserving.

The silent endurance Zacharias exhibits towards barbs both overt and sly, the way Prunella bites her tongue against unsaid words despite internal feelings of betrayal in order to mitigate harm done to her undeservedly--in such ways Zen Cho speaks to a more complete picture of navigating a racist society as a PoC.

The sense I get from books by many non-marginalized authors who try to tackle racism is that, in their world, racism is bad and a lot of people are racists and THOSE people are bad. The sense I get from Cho's novel is that racism is pervasive. (And bad, of course. That goes without saying here).

People can be on your side in one way, and not in another. Friends may not understand. Advocates can do and say things that are hurtful and problematic. And always, the greatest burden is on YOU, the person of color, the person who gets to deal with this shit whether people believe you or not. But it doesn't mean you don't get to have a life, find love, achieve positions of power, and even have fun and joy and whimsical escapades just like everyone else.

I really appreciate Zen Cho for explicitly making this subject a part of her novel and her character's struggles in a book that is very much a lighthearted, whimsical story. It adds an important layer of depth and truth to the story. To not include racism both explicit and implicit would have been to ignore a key facet to the characters' experiences in the world.

If you don't experience racism firsthand, it's a long journey to understand how deep the insinuating tentacles of racism are in our society, and how they color our experiences in ways that are hard to even put into words.

That's not to say "don't try." Please, try! I'm a proponent of the view that writing (and reading!) diverse perspectives of people different from you encourage empathy within yourself, if you try hard and do research and listen.

The key word here being LISTEN. Try to level up, okay?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

REVIEW: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Star Rating: **** 4/5 


Title: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Genre: Fantasy
Subgenre: Magical Regency England (I admit I don't actually know what this subgenre is called ... )
Review by Silicon.
Magic and mayhem collide with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…


This was the first book in the Diverse SFF Book Club (#DSFFBookClub on twitter, join us!).

This is a Regency England setting with magic! Every now and then I get a hankering for some good high society magical England novels, and this book absolutely fits the bill. However, there is one little difference between those books and this one:


(I was gonna hit the CAPSLOCK button sometime ...)


Our mains are Zacharias, a black man, and Prunella, a half-Indian woman. In a Regency England setting! Tell me, when have you read a Regency or Victorian England book with even ONE non-white character. Go on, I'll wait. (Gail Carriger's Finishing School has one black boy, but to me he's always felt very much a token ... a discussion for another post).

Cho writes the realities of being a PoC in a predominately white society excellently--both Zacharias' and Prunella's experiences really ring true. Both Zacharias and Prunella regularly have to deal with racist mindsets from people around them--sometimes even people on their side. I've now written a whole damn post on this topic so stay tuned for when that comes out! I really enjoyed reading a PoC perspective on this era in English history.

(BTW, take a look at the twitter account @medievalpoc. I love it. ACTUAL IMAGES of PoC in medieval times! In Europe, even!)

Cho also doesn't hesitate in exposing the sexism of society and how it affects her characters. Prunella, of course, is fully cognizant of the limitations society places on her--and her response it to reach in, grab, and twist society to MAKE her a place. She's determined, resourceful, and knows what she wants and isn't afraid to upset society's apple cart to get it!

As a contrast, Zacharias is a calm and thoughtful character determined to work for society's good despite his colleagues' rejection of him. He faces some of the worst machinations of the antagonists, and yet persists in doing his duty to the fullest extent.

I loved Zacharias' and Prunella's conversations that show how different their worldviews are.

Cho also includes a woman who, in my mind, is in a tight race with Prunella to be my favorite character. Mak Genggang, a Malaysian magician who wreaks havoc in London (both intentionally and unintentionally)! I loved her friendship with Prunella. She's definitely someone I'd want on MY side!


England's magical stocks are drying up, and the English Magicians are pissed. The task falls to Zacharias, Sorcerer Royal, to solve why. But his enemies are numerous and many hope for him to take a fall--even fatally.

Prunella is a woman with an astounding magical gift, and barely a friend in the world. Left bereft of protection yet possessing a secret of great magical value, she is determined to use her power to turn her situation around and secure for herself a place in a society that doesn't want her.

What happens when they meet?

The plot is not fast paced but not glacial either. There are several aspects to the political conundrum the characters face which come to light throughout the book, it's not a simple antagonist they face, and the problem isn't one-sided. However I did not feel particularly surprised by any twist save the viciousness of the other magicians.

I also felt some of the solutions were just a tad too neat for my twisty brain. While I enjoyed the magic system, a lot of it was hidden in academic language that is unexplained: such as obtuse spell names after people long dead. For me, it made it harder to really assess what the limits of magical power really were.

I was very pleased with the ending. NO SPOILERS. (And by now I hope you all know I can be very pleased with either a tragic or a happy ending so YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW *coughs*).

Writing Style

This book's style is marked by a beautiful use of language reminiscent of Jane Austen (I haven't read Heyer myself, but Cho was inspired by her novels!), very precise and absolutely period-perfect to my ear. Cho doesn't break voice even once, absolutely no modern phrases or anachronisms! Lots of snarky dialogue with double meanings, swift retorts, and imaginative metaphors! I adore snark, so I had a lot of fun reading along, especially with Prunella's conversations. The dialogues are insightful, deep, but also funny, bantering, and intelligent!

Magic System

I enjoyed the magic system--it's very scholarly in general, but with inclusion of familiars, magical artifacts, and capricious fairies. I liked the double-edged nature of the familiars a lot--beneficial, yes, but at what cost! It was really interesting to have a magic system where magic is inborn, but suppressed by society in women while encouraged in men. The magic school for girls shown in the beginning of the book shows how magic can be turned to harmful to the user, intentionally so. It was an interesting take on a naturally magical society.


Final Remarks

You may think that with all the "heavy" subjects I've mentioned that this is a dense brick of a novel. Not true. The story is very much in the style of magical Regency settings--lighthearted, whimsical, funny. That Cho is unafraid to include experiences of racism & sexism in such a novel is something I greatly appreciated. Yes, your characters can experience microaggressions but also have whimsical, funny magical escapades. This is not a heavy book at all.

I really enjoyed this novel and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is fond of:

Sorcery & Cecilia by
Gail Carriger's Finishing School series (Book 1: Etiquette and Espionage)
Jane Austen
Georgette Heyer

Join in the discussion on Twitter using the #DSFFBookClub hashtag!