It always tickles me when people criticize progressive portrayals of social justice in historical settings as being “unrealistic” even when those books have magic in them. Leaving aside the fact that there have always been radicals in every era, if you can stomach sorcerers and fae in your story, you should be able to accept that some men in Georgian England might want women to be educated.
I’ve had an ebook of Sorcerer to the Crown for ages but am only now getting around to reading it after receiving it in the Book Riot September Book Mail box. Boy, was I missing out! Zen Cho has created an excellent alternative history fantasy here, complete with everything from class/race/imperialism consciousness to kickass magic scenes and political intrigue.
I’m seeing some criticism that the book is slow to start, and I would agree. That might seem like a strange statement, considering that Cho immerses us in several mysteries. Why is Britain’s access to magic, which seeps into the world from Faerie, dwindling? Zacharias Wythe has become the Sorcerer Royal under mysterious circumstances, and although we don’t believe those nasty rumours he killed Sir Stephen, why exactly is Sir Stephen’s ghost hanging around with him, and where is the Sorcerer Royal’s familiar, Leofric? These conundrums, combined with the more existential opposition Zacharias faces as a Black, former slave acceding to the position of Sorcerer Royal, should be enough to get Sorcerer to the Crown off to a marvellous start.
Perhaps it is this overabundance of potential conflict that slows down the story. There isn’t much magic happening at first. Instead, we spend most of our time hearing about how Zacharias needs to leave London for his own good, or seeing the Government attempt to manipulate him for their own ends. Cho doesn’t infodump on us, but she tries to manage a lot of plots at once, so she has a hard time bringing any one of them into focus.
This all changes when Prunella enters the picture. I actually don’t like Prunella much (I find her annoying precocious and rude), but I love the role that her character plays and her effect on Zacharias and the novel. What we essentially have in the meet-cute is the beginning of a Power Couple who can set magic in Britain on its head. And then we get this passage, wherein Zacharias mulls over the question of educating magical women properly in the craft, which I love:
But could female ability be any argument for encouraging women to exercise it? Surely feminine magic must be curbed, magic being so peculiarly detrimental to women’s delicate frames. Besides, magic was too hard to come by in these days for it to be frittered away in women’s frivolities—ballgowns and christening gowns and gowns of other descriptions.
I love this, because Cho depicts Zacharias both as a radical and as a man of his own time. On the one hand, he can empathize with Prunella’s situation, because like her he has experienced oppression and discrimination as a result of his skin colour and a taint of “foreignness” about him. On the other hand, he is a man, who has been raised in English society, and therefore acquired certain ideas about women. Rather than portraying Zacharias as a feminist crusader from the beginning, Cho smartly has him come around to these ideas gradually. He starts as an open-minded but somewhat biased male, and as he gets to know Prunella better and thinks more on the subject, he changes his mind. We need to see more of this in fiction: the flawed characters who make the same journeys we have to make.
As the story picks up, the disparate plot elements converge in a very pleasing way. Cho adds in critiques of nineteenth century English imperialism, particularly in Southeast Asia. She delivers some low-key romance, which is very satisfactory in the way it doesn’t eclipse the main plot. The thaumaturgical antagonists are disappointingly obtuse and one-dimensional, but I liked most of the Faerie elements. “Faerie” itself is such a generalized, often-used creation these days that it has almost become a trope in and of itself. Cho does some interesting things with it, particularly when it comes to familiars and their relationship with their sorcerer masters, to keep it fresh.
I also really enjoyed the ending. I like Zacharias’ solution to his ethical dilemma, and the way that Cho essentially bursts this whole gender thing wide open. This lays the ground for such an interesting new set of conflicts in the sequel! Similarly, the romance element of the book feels more natural and satisfying than if it had been a bigger part of the picture.
Sorcerer to the Crown is an exciting blend of historical fantasy, mystery, and socially aware commentary on gender and race. The diction and somewhat humorous lens will be familiar to anyone who has read modern writing set in Georgian or Regency England. Additionally, Cho’s characters are intriguing and diverse. I’m reminded a bit of Steeplejack, which, like Sorcerer to the Crown, is a slow burn to start but a brief candle by the end.