Firstly, if you haven’t had the opportunity to see the gold-foil cover of this book in person, you’re missing out on a beautiful piece of artwork. That’s a gorgeous cover!
Secondly, this is a book that lends itself readily to comparison, so I hope the author can forgive me for starting with this: Sorcerer to the Crown is Jane Austen with dragons, magic and modern identity politics. It is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell lite. It’s a fun jaunt through a world that never was. Oh, if only it was.
Thirdly, a review. This is a fantasy of Regency England manners as well as modern day perspectives on race and gender. Zen Cho is one of those authors who secludes herself from reading modern fiction until she has completed her period piece, and this really shows in the language she uses here. Words rarely used in modern English (or at least the American version of it) are common here: pelisse, reticule, inamoratas, distrait, piquant, philtres, mendaciously, enervation, mésalliance and soupçon. Cho has worked very hard to make this book feel like it could have truly been written by an alternate world Jane Austen.
The joys to be found in Sorcerer to the Crown fit largely into character interactions. There is a plot, of course, and I enjoyed it. But the truth of Cho’s world lies in the small moments, the spoken word, the gentle concerns. The characters are generally polite, or at least pretend to be.
“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.
The general storyline goes as such: a serious child with African lineage, Zacharias Wythe, is taken in by Sir Stephen Wythe, the Sorcerer to the Crown, at a young age and taught how to do magic. Now, Zacharias, being African, was taken from his parents, and Sir Stephen does not seem to view this as a concern. This is not glossed over and we recognize that there is a large degree of cruelty in this. On the other hand, Zacharias recognizes that he was provided food and shelter and an education, that his parents had likely become slaves, and that they may even be dead. Upon the death of Sir Stephen, before the start of the novel, Zacharias is somehow granted the staff of office and is now Sorcerer to the Crown. As you can imagine, with a novel set in Regency England, there was a bit of a fuss over a black man becoming head of the society of magic users.
The other protagonist is Prunella Gentleman. She has been a student/servant at a school designed to teach young women of fine breeding how to avoid using their magic. Further than that, the girls are taught how to repress their magical ability. Women of society, obviously, are unable to handle magic due to their weak frames. Your average peasant witch is right and fine, but women of breeding certainly shouldn’t do it. Prunella is not necessarily a woman of breeding: her father appeared at Mrs. Daubeney’s school one day with the child, and through a series of events, she winds up living there as not-quite a student and not-quite a servant. She is half-Indian, you see, or half-Native as they say here. And because she was left with nothing, her position has been impossible to quantify. We soon discover, however, that she was left a few things after all. A few important, dangerous, wonderful things.
The story really begins when Zacharias goes to the school to speak to the young women about magic.
There is a romantic component to this novel, as one might suspect from a book with the trappings of an Austen novel. There are also many small, clever, enjoyable moments.
For a moment a fragile silence reigned over the Hall–a quiet composed of pure astonishment. It was broken by a deep, bubbling, delighted laugh, issuing from Damerell’s corner of the room.
“I have never been so happy to have risen before noon,” said Damerell.
My biggest gripe about the book is that it was about 100 pages too short. I wish there had been more to the plot: further twists and turns, a grand adventure. But that wasn’t the book. I would like to note that there is magic here. This isn’t a book in which magic is discussed but never used. Spells are cast, murders are attempted. There are ghosts and familiars and lamia and many other creatures. This is all used to good effect.
This was an enjoyable work, one with much beauty and thoughtful bons mots; a work with history and language and surprises and polite love. I’m excited to one day get my hands on the second book in the series.
If you’re interesting in purchasing this delightfully improper adventure, here is a link: Amazon Link