Zen Cho’s book Sorcerer to the Crown has had so many people crowing about how wonderful it is that I caved in and had to find out for myself what the buzz was about. When I first started reading it I thought, uh-oh, this is so Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell-y how can this possibly not have people crying derivative! But the similarities didn’t last long and in the end it turned out to be a very different novel.
The story is set in Regency England. English magic is on the wane and no one knows why. The British are in an uneasy truce with France agreeing that neither will use magic against the other. But there are goings on in the small nation of Janda Baik that might make things very bad for England without some careful diplomacy. It also turns out that England’s magical stores are shrinking because of some unhappy and very powerful lamiae and witches in Janda Baik. And the fairies are rather peeved at an English sorcerer who broke a treaty with them regarding taking new familiars from the land of Fairy.
In the world of this book anyone can have magic but of course the ones in charge, the thaumaturges, are all men and there is a definite hierarchy. Magical women are scandalous. Sure no one minds the maid or the cook using a little magic to help them in their daily duties but a female of gentle birth using magic? Girls are sent to special schools so they can learn how not to use their magic. The male thaumaturges are convinced that the female frame is too delicate for anything more than minor household magic. Are they about to get a rude awakening!
The very popular Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen, dies suddenly one night and is immediately succeeded by his protégé, Zacharias. The only problem is that Zacharias is a black man, a former slave, bought by Sir Stephen when he was a baby and brought up as if he were his own son. To be a sorcerer, one must have a familiar and the familiar of the Sorcerer Royal has been passed down from one to the other. What has happened to Sir Stephen’s familiar? Rumors spread that Zacharias killed both of them. To add even more complications to his situation, Zacharias returns from giving a speech at one of those special schools for girls with one of the girls.
Prunella, whose mother was Indian and father British, was orphaned young and raised by the proprietess of the school. Prunella has some powerful magical abilities that impress Zacharias so much he brings her back to London to teach her how to be a thaumaturge. Since Prunella does not have an independent fortune, she gets Zacharias to agree to have Lady Wythe, Sir Stephen’s widow, launch her into Society that she might find a husband with money. Prunella is a sassy, savvy girl who speaks her mind and has a penchant for adventure and trouble-making. Both she and Zacharias have secrets that make for all sorts of delightful twists and turns in the story.
Along with being a fast-paced tale full of magic and adventure and a number of I’m-not-taking-any-crap-from-you magical women, the story also very nicely weaves racial and gender issues throughout. It is done in such a subtle way too that not one of the thaumaturges who votes to remove Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal ever mentions it has anything to do with him being a black man, but as the reader you understand it has almost everything to do with it. There is also a quiet revelatory moment during which the ghost of Sir Stephen comes to understand that his protégé’s life has been very different than he had thought because the white Sir Stephen had no reason to notice all of the slights and sly remarks directed at Zacharias because of his color.
It is because of Zacharias and Prunella that the book has gotten so much attention. A fantasy novel with a hero and heroine who aren’t white and that doesn’t make excuses or tie itself into knots in order to make that happen is a big deal. That the book also manages questions of race and gender so adeptly and in such a matter-of-fact manner is also a big deal. At the same time, it is kind of sad that the race and gender of the main characters of the book are unusual enough that it has people buzzing. Hopefully one day there will be so much diversity in books that it is no longer such a newsworthy item.
Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s first novel and she is a little surprised I think by its popularity. Born and raised in Malaysia, Cho moved to the UK to pursue a law degree. She began practicing law in the UK, got married and a couple years ago started writing the novel. She had been writing short stories and fan fiction, had even done some editing so she wasn’t a complete novice. She still practices law part time, at least according to one interview I read. And she is at work on another novel, purportedly one that takes place in the same world as Sorcerer but with different main characters, though Cho has said Zacharias and Prunella will make an appearance.
I found Sorcerer to the Crown a delightful book. It is well paced and plotted, the characters aren’t always so very three-dimensional but they are interesting and definitely not cardboard cutouts. Sometimes Prunella seems a bit too wise to the ways of the world and society and just a smidge too composed for her age and upbringing, but her sass and confidence are contagious and make it easy to overlook the other things. Quite the debut, it will be fun to follow Cho’s career and see where she goes from here.