Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown
by Zen Cho
An anonymous, rabble-rousing pamphlet being circulated at the start of Zen Cho’s enormously winning debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown lays out the situation concisely, if scurrilously:
Its most faithful supporters cannot deny that English magic is now at its lowest ebb. We count fewer sorcerers among us than ever before, and in the past twenty years only a single magician has dared venture into Fairyland, where before there was a continual traffic across the border. As for familiars, those most valuable vessels of magic, England has received not a one since the ascension of our King.
Is it any surprise, however, that English thaumaturgy should find itself in such a state of degradation, when it willingly bends its knee to a woolly Afric?
The “woolly Afric” in question is Zacharias Wythe, a black man and, much to the dismay of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the new Sorcerer Royal, and in the alternate-reality Georgian England of Cho’s imagining, that’s hardly the only mundane prejudice at play. England’s class structure is in full force, for instance, and in addition the Society enforces its strict ban on women practicing magic:
Nothing disgusted a thaumaturge so much as a witch. Shameless, impudent, meddling females, who presumed to set at naught the Society’s prohibition on women’s magic, and doped the common people with their potions and cantrips!
This blending of Thackeray and Tolkien is the genius gimmick of Sorcerer to the Crown, and although it will elicit many comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (the two books have essentially identical settings and premises and share a great deal of period atmosphere, with characters making offhand allusions to “our man Raffles” and “that tyrant Bonaparte” and so on), it’s actually a far more nimble and entertaining book, far less concerned with the fustian atmospherics that preoccupy so much of Clarke’s book and far more cutting in its social commentary, especially when Zacharias meets the book’s other standout character, a woman named Prunella who’s actually a powerful thaumaturge in her own right. Throughout her book, Zen Cho smartly interweaves the plot’s fantasy concerns – why is the kingdom of Fairyland choking off England’s supply of raw magic? – with colonial comic riffs that seem to have walked straight out of a Flashman novel, as when Zacharias is dealing with two petty potentates on the island of Janda Baik (“a minute speck in the Malay archipelago”) and the conversation starts off theoretical but takes an old familiar imperial turn:
“I hope you will forgive my ignorance, sir, but Oriental lamiae are a species of magical creature of which I have had no experience. I have read Du Plessis’s monograph, and understand them to be a type of ghoul – the vengeful spirits of moral women wronged in life – but those his is the best exposition we have of the subject, Du Plessis says nothing of how they may be dealt with. If you would be so good as to explain, what form of assistance is it that you seek?”
His sentence had scarcely been conveyed to the royals when the sultana sat up and let out an urgent stream of words. This was translated succinctly.
Zen Cho has crafted a world in Sorcerer to the Crown that’s adaptable to any number of adventures, and she’s created characters her readers will very much want to follow on those adventures. Fantasy debuts don’t get much more promising than that.