By way of introductory remarks I’d like to note that Davinia Evans, author of the alchemy meets intrigue meets swashbuckling romp that is Notorious Sorcerer, is a personage with whom I am more than passingly acquainted. She is an egg of the most superior and benevolent nature, if you will forgive the descent into Woosterism. Such things can sometimes make picking up a book for the first time a nervous affair. One does not wish to hate such a work. (It also makes an early declaration important for the sake of integrity).
In any case, I’m happy to report that Notorious Sorcerer is really rather good.
I am also going to have to be a little more spoilery than usual here, so have a look at the cover as a space break for those who want out.
The first and most important way in which it is good is the voice. Evans possesses clarity, wry humour, a touch of quiet poetry, and a keen sense of pacing. It’s probably not a surprise I love the prose when me and she know each other partly through having many shared keystone authors, but it’s still not every day I feel the need to tell people about individual lines i.e.
“The first three bowls Siyon pulled down from the shelves were unsuitable—soft, soft, and the third Tehroun ran a finger over and pronounced, “Lacquer,” like it had done something unspeakable to his mother. “
It’s got a real Swordspoint tone to it for those who know of it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out Evans actually used it as a comp along with Lies of Locke Lamora, which it’s also rubbing shoulders with. The recent comp I’d have probably made for the prose tone is Leigh Bardugo, and Leigh Bardugo knows her shit.
The next most important way – with a vital exception that I’ll get to in a moment – is I liked the characters. Siyon, the titular Notorious Sorcerer (well, eventually) is an interesting, likeable mix of hungry intelligence, scrappy obnoxiousness, and jagged frailty. He ricochets off of the privileged, magnetic, impetuous Zagiri like a drunken uncle on the bouncy castle at a kid’s party. There are no shortage of well-realised, highly entertaining characters, with pride of place for the scandalously underused Auntie Geryss, a somewhat cranky elderly alchemist.
The one character I found a bit of a chore is unfortunately quite an important one. Izmirlian Hisarani is a gentleman of the upper classes who engages Siyon to help him go to another plane, leaving the mortal plane entirely, and is also Siyon’s main love interest. He’s also a bit of a wet dishcloth, which puzzles me to type out as he’s got quite a lot going on. I guess maybe it’s hard to make someone with limited interest in the world around him seem interesting at times. Or maybe he just wasn’t Zagiri, who I didn’t want shacking up with Siyon but who I did want causing chaos with him. Whatever it was, I found myself skimming his segments a bit at times, and struggling a bit with the story towards the middle when the story gets most focused on romantic feelings.
However, that didn’t prevent me from finishing the story, and since the story becomes a bit broader, I found myself rather enjoying it. But at the end I think I have to say good but not great, and the main reason for that is this –
There’s just so much going on.
So much that I think it hampers things. The place where I think the most meat was left on the bone is the way some big scenes lack the build up to be big scenes. There’s a scene where Siyon meets his family for the first time in a long time, and I just kind of raced through. There’s a scene that makes literal one of the book’s big themes, the examination of how love can bind you to destructive things, and it kind of hits and kind of doesn’t as the characters aren’t quite built up enough. To use a cricket analogy, it’s like Evans has spotted a good spot but has moved too quick to get sufficient force on the ball to get it all the way to the boundary. Not enough backswing. A little short of a home run, for all you poor gits who don’t know enough of cricket.
There’s other places where it can be an issue for some readers though. I know some reviewers are complaining about the worldbuilding. For me, it’s coherent and interesting to read so it’s all good, but I can see how others are frustrated. I can imagine what’s going on, but others can’t. There’s very little sense of history beyond alchemy, very little sense of the world beyond the city (which does strike me as a tad odd in a book that is in some ways for all the marbles fate of everything). The arc of Anahid, Zagiri’s sister, is a bit one-dimensional for where it ends up (I suspect the omission of time with her husband is deliberate and even quite clever, but maybe still doesn’t quite hit for me).
For me, there’s enough material here to make a much bigger book, possibly even two of them. When Notorious Sorcerer is in brisk action mode, that doesn’t matter. When it seeks emotional impact, I’m afraid to say it did for me.
What else might turn a reader off the book? It pushes the notion of class struggle pretty front and centre. I wouldn’t say it goes very deep on that throughout the whole book, but does for a few chapters and is fairly consistently there. The phrase “ask for everything and be appalled if you don’t get it” will live on in my head for a while. I’m fairly finicky on this sort of thing these days, and it was no big thing for me, but it might be for others. For all the talk of swashbuckling, it is rather low on swordfights, or at least that’s how I remember it. I think there’s a few chases? It has a swashbuckling air, but not swashbuckling content. I think there might be some chases? I wouldn’t have minded a bit more swashbuckling.
Still, like all books, Notorious Sorcerer is best enjoyed when taken for its strengths, of which it possesses a good many. It crackles with irreverent energy, reads quick, and boasts a good rogues’ gallery. Plus it has alchemy. I do like alchemy.
As such it is with great relief that I can confirm I’ll be greatly looking forwards to when the sequel comes out, and not mumbling my excuses to the author.
I received an ARC copy of this book in return for an honest review and I’d like to thank Orbit (even if their copies got filched by a postie of taste twice – twice!), Davinia Evans, and Netgalley for this.
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