Review: Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho

Sorceror to the Crown

Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: September 10th 2015
This edition: ARC (received from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review)

Synopsis:

THE FATE OF ENGLISH MAGIC LIES IN THEIR HANDS

In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. He leads the eminent Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but a faction schemes against him. Meanwhile, the Society’s failing its vital duty – to keep magic levels stable within His Majesty’s lands. The Fairy Court is blocking supply, straining England’s dangerously declining magical stores. Then the government demands to use the remnants in its French war!

Ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman is desperate to escape the school where she’s drudged all her life, and a visit by the beleaguered Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to use it. At his wits’ end, the last thing Zacharias needs is a female magical prodigy! But together, they might change the very nature of sorcery.

So here’s the thing. The year may not be over yet, but the number of books I’ve already read in 2015 that I know, beyond a doubt, will be on my Best Of list come December is rising at a marvellous rate. One of those Undoubtedlys is this stunning debut novel right here.

I should pause here for a bit of a ‘bad reader’ confession. Until relatively recently, I had never seriously considered picking up anything that could be labelled “Regency”. I had a lot of preconceptions, and not many of them were encouraging. Then I got contrary at myself, and I picked up Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Then, a bit later, I threw myself right into the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Then I kind of had to admit I’d been very wrong before, but by then I didn’t really mind because I’d found new stories that I could love for new reasons. Sorceror To The Crown is one more addition to that particular list.

Zen Cho may have written this book with a strictly old-fashioned narrative, but this wasn’t nearly as off-putting as I’d worried it might be – and her story is all modern thinking. It’s as feminist as it gets, and the setting, the prose and the antagonistic stance of a good few of the characters throw this into marvellously stark relief. For all that its women are unquestionably treated as lesser, there’s no getting around the fact that these women are most assuredly not lesser. This cause is championed by both of the book’s protagonists, but what I appreciate most about this is that the forward thinking and intent to reform society that’s displayed by Zacharias Wythe never overshadows Prunella Gentleman’s own role. Indeed, Prunella takes charge of any scene she appears in, and her bold-as-brass attitude had me falling as madly in love with her as the suitors she sets out to attract upon her arrival in London.

Cleverly, though, this story manages to still belong to both of these characters. As Prunella advances up the ladder of London society, it’s left to Zacharias to manage his apparently inescapable decline in it, but this certainly doesn’t mean he’s overshadowed himself. As an African man raised in privilege by the Englishman who bought him from his enslaved parents, this story should be just as much his to tell, and the balance that’s struck here is deftly done.

Setting aside the feminist outlook and the clever plotting, this book is also damned charming – and funny as hell when it has a moment to be so. It’s even, on smartly-used occasions, funny and highly dramatic at the same time. If Zen Cho’s talent for adding a deft touch to her writing wasn’t evident enough with her characterisation, it’s definitely present in her humour. For all that it’s got the old British stiff upper lip pitch-perfect, there’s a delightfully quirky, dare I say Pratchett-esque, aspect to it that would leave this book far less enjoyable if it wasn’t there.

Considering that this novel is her debut, I’ve got to say I’m already amazed at what Zen has proved herself capable of here. There is so much more I could say, but as it would basically amount to excitable fangirl flailing (Dragons! Mermaids! Fairy familiars!) and potential spoilers, I will simply end here by saying that this is absolutely one of 2015’s best offerings yet, and if any (or indeed all) of what I’ve highlighted here tickles your fancy, you definitely need to be reading it. If there’s going to be more to come from Miss Gentleman and Mr Wythe, it cannot come soon enough for my liking.

 

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