Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Book 1 of Sorcerer Royal
Publisher: Ace (9/1/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
So many comparisons have already been made to describe Sorcerer to the Crown, and I’m going to chime in too with “This feels like epic fantasy for fans of Gail Carriger.” Zen Cho has created a world here that’s reminiscent of Austen meets Tolkien, yet at the same time it’s so wonderfully adaptable that pigeonholing this book into any one category makes it feel a bit remiss.
A Regency setting is what you will get though, even if the nature of the style and story is up for debate. “Fantasy of manners” is also a subgenre that frequently crops up in discussions of novels like this, with a focus on a rigid set of expectations within a hierarchical societal structure. One of the protagonists in Sorcerer to the Crown is Zacharias Wythe, the first black sorcerer in Britain who also holds the highest office in his profession, a fact that makes him the target of much opposition and bigotry from many of his so-called “socially-refined” peers who feel that a freed slave should not have risen so far above his station.
Institutional racism and oppression is a real menace in this story, even overshadowing the threats of war from France, the dwindling magical resources of England, and the political entanglements involving the matter of witches and belligerent visiting diplomats. In spite of all that’s going on, Zacharias’ greatest enemies end up being his own neighbors and fellows. Already plagued with ugly rumors surrounding the death of his predecessor and adoptive guardian, now it seems someone has decided to go even further by attempting to murder Zacharias. Just when he thinks life couldn’t get complicated enough, along also comes Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman of considerable thaumaturgical power, and Zacharias takes it upon himself to mentor her in a society where women using magic is considered anathema.
The fleeting mention of Prunella in the book’s blurb actually belies the huge role that she plays. While I adored Zacharias, to me it was Prunella who stole the show as the star of the novel with the sheer force of her personality. In every proper situation she somehow still manages to find a way to throw expectations back into the scandalized faces of those who naively thought they could use tradition to keep her in line. It was also very entertaining to see how often she bends etiquette to her advantage, wielding it as a weapon rather than letting it restrict her (as evidenced by a particularly hilarious scene where she proposes the use of gossip and rumor as a way to actually deflect potential damage to her reputation). I loved her for her frankness and her thoroughly unbreakable spirit, and because she is strong, ruthless, and determined – in other words, the opposite of everything the small-minded folks in this book say about women magicians.
I was also surprised at how light-hearted this novel was, some of its weightier themes notwithstanding. I definitely don’t claim to be an expert in Regency fiction or books of this type, but it’s my understanding that a particular style of humor is frequently employed and that it could be quite tricky to pull off. For what it’s worth, I thought the author nailed it. There’s some genuine wit in here, subtle but also infused with that certain Austenesque charm. That said, I wouldn’t exactly call Sorcerer to the Crown an easy read, especially if you’re not use to the style, which I’m personally wasn’t. I confess to having a difficult time at the beginning of the novel while adjusting to the writing, which I thought it was a little hard on the eyes and it made reading slow. But eventually I did get into it, as you can see; once I reached a point where I could enjoy myself and start appreciating its cleverness and nuances, this novel was a pure joy.
Zen Cho crafts her setting with much love and care, evoking the Regency era and all its punctilious social arrangements but also manages to seamlessly weave in romance, adventure and political intrigue – and I haven’t even gotten the chance to mention the magic and all the fantastical creatures yet. Dandy socialites, posh boarding school matrons and quarreling politicians share this wonderfully unique world with fairies, dragons and magicians. It is a truly delightful alternate history where magic is an integral part of life.
You really can’t ask for more. Sorcerer to the Crown is a deftly written novel that thoroughly explores important issues, adding further depth to a story already rich with memorable characters and a pleasantly entertaining plot. Zen Cho is a new fantasy novelist who is immediately going on my list of authors to watch, and I’m looking forward to her next book in this series.