The Return of the Sorceress, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Subterranean 978-1-64524-030-3, $40.00, 96pp, hc) June 2021. Cover by Fang Xinyu.
Since her first novel Signal to Noise was published in 2015, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s career has traced an impressive curve – award nominations for Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019), a major bestseller and Hulu deal with last year’s Mexican Gothic. Moreno-Garcia’s affinity for weird fiction is evident in all these, as well as in her short fiction and editorial work (for which she won a World Fantasy Award in 2016), so it’s a bit of a surprise and a delight that with The Return of the Sorceress, an efficient and energetic novella from Subterranean, she turns her attention to classic sword and sorcery. Or at least knife and sorcery. The protagonist Yalxi, a deposed and exiled sorceress, is in pretty bad shape when we meet her – wounded, filthy, and sorely lacking in equipment. About the only thing she has going for her is her nahual, a kind of shape-shifting guardian animal spirit from Mayan lore.
We gradually learn that Yalxi had once fallen in love with a fellow sorcery student, Xellah, both apprenticed to the master sorcerer Teotah, whose power derived from a jewel called the Diamond Heart. Eventually Yalxi became the Mistress of Sorcery herself, but was betrayed and imprisoned by Xellah, who’s now the Master of the Guild – corrupted by the Diamond Heart, which exerts power over its possessors in a manner reminiscent of a very familiar ring. Aided by a former associate, she retrieves a fragment of the diamond by exhuming a grave and sets about plotting her return, aided by the Guild of Thieves, her sometimes rather snarky nahual, and even the spirit of Teotah. As the final confrontation approaches, inevitably involving some impressive sorcery tricks, Moreno-Garcia reveals a few tricks of her own, complicating the relationship of the two main adversaries almost at the last minute, and subtly commenting on some familiar sword-and-sorcery conventions.
All this – Yalxi’s escape, finding allies, gathering the necessary tools to challenge Xellah, visiting the Court of Thieves, hiding out in the city, finally arranging the climactic duel of sorcerers – is packed into a relatively modest-length novella, although it has the feel of an episode from a much longer fantasy epic; important swaths of backstory, such as Yalxi and Xellah’s student days, the apprenticeship to and eventual overthrow of Teotah, Xellah’s seizure of power and betrayal of Yalxi, are revealed in almost offhanded bits of dialogue or fleeting memories, as are the principles of magic and sorcery at work in this world. On the one hand, it’s a model of narrative efficiency; Moreno-Garcia seems to enjoy getting on with the action where other writers might have paused for a couple hundred pages of worldbuilding, as if to demonstrate that S&S fantasy doesn’t need the bloat. On the other, we wouldn’t mind seeing a good deal more of this gritty, treacherous world and its not-entirely-innocent sorceress.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the June 2021 issue of Locus.
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