Imagine a world where women don’t have the same rights as men, and Regency England’s foreign policy is built on bigotry. Imagine that world having sorcerers, fairies, vampires and dragons. Welcome to the world of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.
Zacharias is the son of African slaves, bought and raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen. When the latter passes away, Zacharias takes both the mantel and the staff that the position demands. But not all is well. England’s magic is fading. Relationships with the Fairy Court are strained, as are relations with France and further afield. And there are grumblings that the body that oversees magic and thaumaturges, the Committee, want to wrestle the power from Zacharias.
Into this rich world created by Cho comes Prunella Gentleman. She seems to be gifted in the ways of magic. Shame, then, that women aren’t allowed to be magicians or greater. Country witches are the best they can hope for. Prunella is an orphan, and when exploring her father’s inheritance, comes across something that could perhaps save English magic. Meanwhile, there are precarious foreign affairs to address, with a Sultan and his wife, and a witch from the Malaysian island of Janda Baik (Cho is from Malaysia). So, not easy times for Zacharias. Prunella however worms her way into Zacharias’ affections, and once he sees her power and potential, determines to reform English magic and repair the ties with Fairy.
There is a lot of complex plotting in Sorcerer to the Crown, much of which is to be admired. This is not just a story of an apprentice magician finding her feet. This is not just the story of an outsider who has risen to the top, struggling to justify his place in society. This is a story of institutional sexism and racism: the idea being that foreigners are beneath the English. The idea that women can’t be equals or betters than men. It features political duplicity, class warfare and a critique of English Imperialism. Which is a lot to get through in what is written in the style of a Regency magical romance. The ladies are all proper and magic has rules. Tradition is everything.
Cho’s writing is confident and effective, considering this is a debut. She relishes in her vision. The language she uses is appropriately formal, both in dialogue and narrative prose. There is occasional wit, too. Wherever you look there are capital schemes or murmured courtesies. The mostly-formal tone won’t be to everyone’s taste – it lends a certain distance between the reader and the characters which may make empathy challenging. There’s nothing wrong with the accomplishment, but it won’t be to every fan of fantasy fiction’s taste. The characters are great, and are all multi-dimensional. Prunella, as heroine and the main driver of plot, is wilful and annoying at times, but rightly so, for the world she lives in is challenging for her. She is discriminated against for no good reason. Zacharias is a little wet at times, and a little too bullish at others. One of the main plot points regarding his ascension to his position concerns the death of his mentor. At times, Sir Stephen comes to the fore, and then seems to be side-lined for a while, before popping up again. No real explanation for this waxing and waning of behaviour is forthcoming.
The fantasy is solid and has depth, as do the characters. The writing is as fine as it could be. Cho’s world is interesting and richly populated with magical creatures and real human monsters. And dragons, of course. It packs a fair punch. The pertinent themes and complex plotting could unravel at lesser hands, but rather than wade through treacle, the reader is more likely to find a delight, if the style suits.
Originally published: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/2015/11/sorcerer-to-the-crown-by-zen-cho/