“It is shockingly ungallant of men to withhold from us our fair share of magic.”
Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England.
Zen Cho sets Sorcerer to the Crown in a recognizable historical England, during the Napoleonic Wars. However, her England is flavoured with magic, still touched by Faery, however much that magic may have been depleted in recent years. The once powerful society of magicians has lost some of its lustre, and the traditionalist magical families are pining for their glory days. Cho’s prose style also has a decidedly historical flavour. This setting and style are certainly reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it is in her two main characters that Cho reveals the true tack of her story, one that moves in a different direction from Clarke’s tale.
Zacharias is a complicated figure. He had no ambitions of his own to public office, preferring a more retired existence, but his dedication to the wishes of his guardian compels him to take up the Staff of office when Sir Stephen dies. Indeed, this has been the story of much of Zacharias’ life. On a ship in the Caribbean, Sir Stephen recognized Zacharias’ magical talent, and purchased him from the ship’s captain. Zacharias was taken to England, given a gentleman’s upbringing, a first rate magical education, and his emancipation on his thirteenth birthday. He has laboured all his life under a debt of gratitude, supressing complicated feelings about the fact that Sir Stephen did not buy his parents’ freedom from the ship’s captain. Nor did he feel he could disagree with Sir Stephen in life, lest he be perceived as ungrateful. Zacharias is essentially engaged in respectability politics, for “his chief aim had always been that he should be beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation.” We get to see this fraught dynamic unravel, as Zacharias is haunted by Sir Stephen’s ghost, and their relationship after death has none of the boundaries it held in life.
Whereas Zacharias is a cautious and prudent character, always concerned with appearances and reputation, Prunella is much more headstrong and carefree. While Zacharias is retiring, a reluctant politician, Prunella is quite openly ambitious. After being dismissed from a girls’ school where young women of magical talent are taught to supress their abilities, Prunella sets her sights on London, and a marriage that will allow her to make her way in society. When the Sorcerer Royal visits the school to give a lecture, Prunella decides that Zacharias Wythe is her means of escape, and introduction to the society of England’s magical families. She seems quite unaware of his unpopularity, or the barriers their backgrounds may cause. Zacharias is a less challenging character, easier to like, but Prunella pushes the envelope with her assertiveness and naked desire to succeed.
In addition to two nuanced and intriguing primary characters, another great figure in Sorcerer to the Crown is Mak Genggang, an elderly woman from the island of Janda Baik. England has a colonial interest in the island nation, but the Sultan of the tiny country is plagued by magical creatures, and complains of the dangerous power of the island’s magical elders, all women. He comes to England seeking help to supress these women, implicitly threatening to ally with the French if England does not assist him. Determined that the Sultan’s voice will not be the only one heard in England, Mak Genggang follows him abroad. She is living proof that women can be powerful magicians and community leaders. In addition to serving as a female mentor for Prunella, Mak Genggang is also the means by which Cho weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction.
Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue. Even as he tries to solve the problem of England’s decreasing magical atmosphere, Zacharias is fighting off assassination attempts, and struggling to negotiate England’s tricky relationship with the neighbouring realm of Faery. Though Britain’s magical power has decreased, magical artifacts and creatures seem to be lurking everywhere, if you look beneath the surface. There is even a touch of romance at the periphery, though it is certain be more significant to the next two volumes of this planned trilogy, which begins with this well-rounded romp through magical England.
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