While reading Sorcerer to the Crown, I couldn’t help comparing it to another 2015 release, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I reviewed a few months ago. They share some superficial plot and character elements—namely an older, powerful male magic-user who finds himself teachina a younger, even more powerful female magic-user whose magical improvisations are at odds with her teacher’s more formal training. The teacher, on his part, despairs at times of his student’s fearless, seemingly thoughtless nature and her willingness to throw caution to the winds with nary a second thought.
Zen Cho and Naomi Novik use these shared elements to tell two entirely different stories. And, in my humble opinion, Zen Cho has written the superior book.
Set in a late-18th century Napoleonic England populated by thaumaturges, magicians, and sorcerers, Zacharias Wythe has the misfortune of holding the title of Sorcerer Royal, leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, in a particularly trying set of circumstances. England’s available magic is rapidly diminishing, and no one has had any contact with the land of Fairy (England’s source of magic) in centuries. Zacharias, who faces distrust and disloyalty for his status as a black freedman, a former slave fostered by the former Sorcerer Royal, has to take charge of the Society, find a solution to England’s loss of magic, and avert a potential international diplomatic disaster. On top of that, he finds himself saddled with a new student, one Prunella Gentleman. In a country where women are forbidden from using magic or receiving a formal education on the matter, Prunella is curious, precocious, and possessed of entirely too much magic than is considered healthy for a young lady. Given her mixed-race status and lack of familial or social connections, Prunella knows she is going to need to make her own way in the world—and when she does, she is going to take Zacharias, English upper-crust society, and the Society of Unnatural Philosophers by storm.
I want to start this review by praising Zen Cho’s writing, which is phenomenal. Written entirely in Jane Austen-esqe, Regency language, using the same sorts of vocabulary, syntax, and tone, the result is a novel that is breathtaking in how pitch-perfect it is. Sorcerer to the Crown is one of those novels in which the strength and confidence of the writing causes you to gape in astonishment that it’s a debut novel. Also, her writing hilarious. Ostensibly Sorcerer to the Crown is a story of magical political intrigue and social/cultural exchange and upheaval, but half the time it’s written in an irreverent tone that’s especially evocative of Oscar Wilde:
“Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!”
I can’t get enough of it.
The story isn’t all fun and games, obviously, as it wrestles with issues of race, class, gender, colonialism, respectability politics, and social advancement under unfair and impossible restraints. Sorcerer to the Crown is an example to all authors who say they can’t add more female characters or more characters of color to their historical-esque fantasy books. Additionally, I loved how Zen Cho incorporated the difference in attitudes towards magic use versus the reality—ostensibly magic is the providence of educated, upper-class gentlemen, but everyone knows and accepts that commoners cast small-time spells that help them do their jobs. Similarly, women may be considered physically unfit for practicing magic, but people will turn a blind eye to the domestic spells lower-class women use, especially if it’s performed while in service to the upper class. It’s a subtle yet powerful detail that provides greater texture to this magical, 18th-century England, reflecting actual class attitudes and power imbalances.
Character-wise, Zacharias is a sweetheart, and I want to give him many hugs. He doesn’t want the position of Sorcerer Royal in the slightest, yet he takes up the mantle and discharges his duties amidst sneers and accusations and outright assassination attempts. Over and over Zacharias confronts the tangle of contradictions that comprise his life: he is a gentleman and accomplished sorcerer; he is black and none of his abilities matter in the eyes of the Society. He is the Sorcerer Royal and obligated to preserve England’s magical prowess; England is part and parcel of the political and economic regime which decreed he would be a slave from birth. And in the midst of all the odds stacked against him, he takes it upon himself to confront England’s long-held stance against any decent woman practicing magic, with the assistance of Prunella Gentleman.
If Zacharias is a sweetheart, Prunella is 100% the best character that appears in this book, and that is saying something. An incredibly powerful magic-user despite no formal training, Prunella is the politest hellion you will ever meet, and she is determined to achieve her goals in the friendliest yet most forceful way possible. How does a penniless, mixed-race orphan plan to ensure financial and social security so she can live the life she wants? Why, introduce herself to society and marry a suitably wealthy bachelor, of course! I love that Prunella’s desire to be taught magic exists simultaneously with her knowledge that she still needs to succeed within existing socio-economic structures, especially if she’s going to do something like overturn England’s long-standing ban forbidding women from being taught magic. She may appear frivolous and flighty to those who meet her, but she possesses the steel core of a woman who knows what she needs and how best to obtain it. Her plot arc is a racehorse ride from start-to-finish, and I loved every bit of it.
Honestly, the one flaw Sorcerer in the Crown possesses is the romance between Zacharias and Prunella. It’s execution is unobjectionable, and it’s a small-enough plot thread that it’s easy to ignore in favor of the rest of the story, but it’s also predictable and unnecessary. There was no real reason I could see for it to exist beyond, “Hey, Zacharias and Prunella are two reasonably compatible characters, so why not have them get together?” Readers of my reviews are going to get used to seeing this frequent complaint of mine—I am beyond tired of unexceptional, predictable romances that seemingly exist for no other reason than the idea that romance is “one of those things people do” or “one of those things readers expect,” so therefore it should be included.
Overall, Sorcerer to the Crown is a stupendous book, and one I can’t recommend enough. It has something for everyone—magic, fairies, alternate history, politics, social issues concerning race, gender, and class, comedy of manners, clever and beautiful writing, and a cast of fantastic characters, (some of which I haven’t even talked about such as Mak Genggang, an elderly Malaysian witch on a mission, and Mr. Damerell, a curmudgeonly magician and one of Zacharias’ few allies). Zen Cho is officially one of my new favorite writers, and, needless to say, I am all set and ready to read her next book.