It’s books like Flight of Magpies by K.J. Charles that make my heart hurt every time someone says that romance novels are dumb. Because this book, even more than the two that preceded it (and those were pretty damn good), is absolutely brilliant. And it’s brilliant in, like, three separate genres, somehow doing justice to each.
For those not familiar with the series, it follows justiciar Stephen Day, a hybrid policeman-wizard, whose job it is to track down and bring to justice magical lawbreakers. His job is not high status or particularly lucrative, but he’s devoted to it. What power he has is entirely magical and he’s very, very good. If you’re a competence porn sort of reader, you’re really going to love Stephen. In the first book, The Magpie Lord, his duties throw him into the path of Lord Crane, a man with a magical problem who just happens to be the son of the man who ruined Stephen’s father. Crane is powerful in a more temporal way, with physical prowess, political clout and immense personal charm. Over the course of three books, they are drawn together and pulled apart by duty, circumstances, bad guys, wanderlust and a society that doesn’t approve of their love, to put it mildly. Flight of Magpies is the culmination of all these conflicts and it is packed full of wickedly hot sex, heart-breaking emotional moments, fast-paced action and a sense of urgency that will make you wish you hadn’t opened the book at 10 pm, all leading to such a dramatic climax that you’ll be exhausted and speechless by the end. But in the best way.
Flight of Magpies is everything romance can be, wrapped up in one tidy package. It contains a story that just couldn’t be told any other way. It’s a gorgeous romance where two men who have quite different stations in life, quite different personalities and major conflicts between them fall in love, have fights, make up and do something amazing together. It’s also a terrific fantasy, with coherent world-building, a highly logical magic system and a perfectly complex system of magical ethics. And it’s accurate historical fiction, using the social mores of the time to stage the conflict.
And not only that, but each of these elements intersects so skillfully. The sex between the characters has magical effects. The historical context impacts the romance. For lovers of Victorian occultism, there are even historical magical intersections. Plus, it’s so devilishly well-written by an author who doesn’t feel compelled to over-explain things: it doesn’t assume that readers are too stupid to read between the lines. And it doesn’t have an ounce of fat. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene, every chapter serves a purpose with none of the curious looping about I’ve seen in too many romances with not enough conflict to carry the story.
The entire Charm of Magpies series is everything genre fiction should be, but often isn’t. It’s perfectly paced, engaging, hilarious, without pretension, and so finely crafted. I’ve pretty much used up all the adjectives in English that mean anything like “good” so I’ll just say: buy it, read it, you won’t regret it.
The weather is finally warming up here in Virginia and when it’s warm, I start wanting tacos. Preferably with margaritas. Lots of margaritas. It happens pretty much every year. The first sign of temperatures above 60 degrees and I’m Googling the best place for tacos in Northern Virginia.
Or, you know, I could just make them myself. And I often do. I’ve been blogging here for a bit less than a year and there are already two taco recipes: Thai beef tacos and carne asada tacos. Today I’m adding a third.
These tacos are really easy. Basically, you brown a pork shoulder, throw it in the crockpot for eight hours, then shred, serve with a cabbage and lettuce slaw and top it all off with a drizzle of Sriracha. It’s vaguely Szechuan-inspired, what with the five spice powder and sliced red chiles in the slaw, but with corn tortillas and Vietnamese Sriracha, it’s nothing like authentic. Just an homage to Crane’s time in China and a brief reference Charles drops at the beginning of the second book of the series, A Case of Possession.
Oh, and for those who hate multiple steps in crockpot recipes, you can totally skip the browning part and just put the shoulder in the crockpot. It won’t be as tasty without the carmelization, but if you’re in a rush, you can. Also, if you’re not into spice, use half a thinly sliced red bell pepper instead of the hot chiles.
Now let’s have tacos.
Szechuan Pork Tacos
Makes: 8 servings (24 tacos)
Time: 8 hours, 25 minutes (hands-on time: 25 minutes)
2 1/2 – 3 pound blade-in pork shoulder
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or other high-heat oil–not olive oil)
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons sweet chili-garlic sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
24 corn tortillas
Sriracha sauce (optional)
1/4 head of napa cabbage, sliced thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 Romaine lettuce heart, slice thin (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
2 Thai chile peppers, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
1. Combine the five spice powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the mixture all over the pork shoulder.
2. Heat the grapeseed oil in a large skillet over high heat until very hot, but not smoking. Sear the roast on all sides (don’t forget the ends), about one minute each side. Remove to a 4 to 6 quarts crockpot. Turn down the heat on the skillet to medium-high.
3. Pour off all but one tablespoon of the oil. Cook the garlic and ginger until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the soy sauce to deglaze the pan and dump everything into the crock pot on top of the pork. Top with brown sugar and sweet chili sauce and stir everything around a little bit. Cook for 8 hours on low.
4. About 10 minutes before the roast is done, prepare the slaw. Combine the rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil and soy sauce in a large bowl. Add the cabbage, lettuce, carrots and chiles. Toss to combine.
4. When the roast is done, reserve the cooking liquid. Take the roast out of the crockpot and use two forks to shred the meat. It should fall right off the bone and shred very easily. Put it in a large bowl and combine with 4 tablespoons of the cooking liquid.
5. Serve shredded pork topped with slaw and a drizzle of Sriracha.