Sorcerer to the Crown
by Zen Cho
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown came out in September 2015. It was a finalist for a British Fantasy award, and during the same voting cycle from that body the author received the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. I've had the paperback for about a year, and decided it was time to read when I saw a sequel announced for next March. Both Amazon and FantasticFiction identify this as the first book in the Sorcerer Royal series, but I decided not to use that for this page's URL. I won't explain why since it would be a bit of a spoiler. The setting is England during the Regency Era, but it's an alternate world, full of magic and witchcraft. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers chooses the Sorcerer Royal, to be both an advisor to the Crown, and also to direct the research and experiments of the society. In actuality, the Sorcerer Royal is chosen by a special staff, since only those worthy of the position are able to escape injury or death when holding it. For many years the Sorcerer's Staff is held by Sir Stephen Wythe, whose familiar is the dragon Leofric, which has also been the familiar of several generations of Sorcerers. The prologue introduces us to Zacharias, Sir Stephen's six-year-old apprentice. Eighteen years later, Zacharias succeeds his benefactor as the new Sorcerer Royal.
Zacharias didn't want or seek the position. He had been content to be secretary to Sir Stephen, to read, research, and help formulate new spells and potions. The Royal Society didn't want him either, but was forced to accept him since the staff accepted him as its new master. There were several reasons for the Society's objections: first, they were convinced that Zacharias had murdered Sir Stephen; second, that he had also killed Leofric, and a Sorcerer without a familiar was unheard of; lastly, and probably an equally strong objection, Zacharias is a Black man. Sir Stephen had purchased him from his previous owner during a tour of the West Indies when Zacharias was an infant. If it was revealed what he had seen in Zacharias to warrant his interest, I missed it. When he is presented to the Society a few years later, Zacharias displays natural thaumaturgical talents. Maybe I shouldn't say natural talents, since it seems all the world's magic comes from another realm, Fairyland, which is also the origin of the familiars. Yet the strength of England's magic is waning, with Zacharias determined to discover the cause. Most society members think it is because of the new Sorcerer's crimes, the accusations of which Zacharias refuses to discuss. Sir Stephen could probably put those rumors to rest if he wanted, since his spirit is still around. And Leofric isn't dead.
There is a small village in Hampshire, Fobdown Purlieu, which is very near a border into Fairyland. Zacharias wants to go there, but also wants to keep his investigations secret. Another member of the society is due to speak at a girl's school nearby, and Zacharias contrives to replace him. The school is for girls of the upper classes who exhibit magical tendencies. It is accepted that many of the poor use spells to help them with mundane tasks, cooking, cleaning, farming, etc. That is acceptable, even for girls and women, but not so for females of the higher classes. The school actually trains the girls on how to suppress any magical abilities they might have, even though the cooks, maids, and footmen are allowed their minor spells. That does not suit Prunela Gentleman, who has graduated from being a student to being the headmistress's right hand girl, as well as sometimes teacher of the younger girls. Prunela was left at the school as a child by her father who committed suicide. She is bi-racial, with her mother (whom she has never known) likely from India. She is also a very gifted magicienne, as Zacharias becomes aware during his visit. He had already had thoughts of extending the teaching of magic to women, and sees in Prunela a likely candidate for success.
Since this is set in Regency England, it is also written in that style, I assume similar to Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, although I've read neither. Very formal diction, with discussions of customs, comportment, and proper etiquette. Quite a few adjectives and adverbs that are not in common usage today had me checking the dictionary frequently. Certain turns of phrase at first seemed awkward; "Are not we friends?" instead of "Are we not friends?", but if the first two words in the former were combined in a contraction it makes sense. That got me to checking carefully, and it seemed there were no contractions used, then that was negated later by a few used in dialogue, including ain't. Prunela wishes to be part of high society, to eventually marry a man of a certain standing and income, but she is also free-spirited, willing to upset society by revealing her magical nature. Two words were used to describe other people, but I think they apply to Prunela as well: froward (willfully contrary; not easily managed), and prolix (given to speaking or writing at great or tedious length). Zacharias wants to keep their teaching sessions private and secret, and while Prunela understands the necessity, many of her actions work in the opposite direction.
It is an alternate world, but real life historical events are incorporated into the narrative. The Napoleonic Wars for one, in which all parties have agreed to abstain from magic on the battlefield. The issue of slavery is addressed of course, along with England's imperialistic actions. It is likely that Prunela's mother had been killed during the siege of Seringapatam, India. England also becomes entangled in other diplomatic problems related to the weakening of their magic. This includes in Malaysia, the author's birthplace although she currently lives in London. It's a potent mix of the fantastical with a disection of the more mundane ills of society. The arrogance of nationalism, the heirarchy of class, the patriarchy, and racial bigotry. All of it comes together through the strengths of the lead characters. Zacharias and Prunela are both poised to revolutionize magic, revolutionize England, perhaps the world. I'm anxious to follow them on their next adventure.
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