Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer_front mech.inddTitle: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Publisher: Ace
Availability: September 1st, 2015

Summary: Magic and mayhem collide with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.  At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.  But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Zen Cho’s short stories are some of my favorites (if you haven’t read her anthology Spirits Abroad, you really should) — so I went into this book with very, very high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed. While Sorcerer to the Crown doesn’t read like her usual fare — this is very Jane Austen meets post-colonial fantasy — it was absolutely wonderful.

Sorcerer to the Crown features Zacharias Wythe, adopted son of Sir Stephen, England’s sorcerer to the crown. When he inherits Sir Stephen’s staff (among other things), he steps into the trying role of being England’s first black Sorcerer Royal. Along the way, he runs into the orphan and incredibly practical, sort-of schoolteacher Prunella Gentleman, who has an important role in the fate of English magic.

Set in a fantasy version of Regency London, Sorcerer to the Crown reminded me in tone of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s writing. The novel perfectly balances the setting of high society in Regency London with the fantasy plot. So if you like novel of manners books, or you love a good fantasy, you’re in for a treat — especially if you want a fantasy that doesn’t fall into the “everyone is white, even the elves!” trap. It’s like getting a bowl with the perfect ratio of rice to curry, and then discovering that there’s a pork katsu hiding in the sauce.

The best part of Sorcerer to the Crown, to me, was how real it felt. Sure, it was fantasy, but the characters themselves, the infighting of England’s magical society, and the various systems of magic all conspired to make the story work. What I find unbelievable about a lot of fantasy and fiction in general is how England (or whatever Western country the book is set in) operates in isolation of the rest of the world, and completely ignores the role colonialism played in making such a society possible. Thankfully, in Zen Cho’s novel, just the opposite happens.

Zacharias and Prunella exist in fantasy England, and experience all the daily microaggressions, and straight-up racism and sexism that follow. Magic-users from other countries make appearances throughout the novel, bringing with them different relationships with magic and throwing into question the nature of England’s political relationship with other nations. My particular favorite is Mak Genggang, a fearsome grey-haired witch who sails in and out of the story, turning it on its head. (I nearly threw my book out of excitement when I first encountered her, but I was riding a train at the time, and restrained myself.)

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Basically, what I’m trying to say is — Sorcerer to the Crown is an awesome fantasy. If you’re into Regency era fiction, or if you’re into good fantasy, then read this book. If you’re not, then you should still read this book. It’s lovely stuff.

Recommendation: Buy it now!
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