Sorcerer to the Crown is a frothy fantasy farce with serious ideas under its lacy skirts; comparing it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (as many people do) feels inappropriate to me as I found that novel dour and slow. Sorcerer to the Crown may also be set in a Regency England with a well-established magical tradition, but it has a gleeful exuberance that makes it a joy from start to finish.
If the tone is whimsical, the context is anything but: we meet former slave and newly-appointed Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe in mourning for his adoptive father. Elevated to the highest thaumaturgical office on his father’s death, he is undermined by the racial prejudice of his sorcerous colleagues and under pressure from the Government to help them out with a ‘little problem’ in the colonies. The snubs and backstabbing in the clubs and salons go on to provide a major plot thread, but the novel lays out the politics and moves right on without getting bogged down.
As if he didn’t have enough troubles, England’s magic is on the wane and a rumour is catching fire that Zacharias murdered his father to steal his staff. In the best British tradition of focusing on your duty over your personal problems and avoiding difficult social situations at all costs, Zacharias leaves town. Being a gentleman in spite of his detractors, he makes time to do a favour to a friend (the implicit joke took 250 pages to catch up with me – sometimes intimidating aunts really are dragons) and stops off to visit a school of ‘gentlewitches’. Enter the outrageous Prunella Gentleman, orphan, magical prodigy and unstoppable force of nature.
Also – and this should go without saying giving the plots bubbling up around us – the last person you would choose to tag along when you’ve got some particularly sensitive spell-casting to do on the borders of Fairy. You know, the sort of spell-casting that could solve all your problems and really piss off the Fairy Court. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and Zacharias ends up with no quick fix and a new and entirely undesirable apprentice (in the eyes of the Establishment, at least – he’s already coming round to the idea that – OH MA GAWD – the lady people might be able to do magic without their brains ASPLODING).
One of the things I delight in across all of Zen Cho’s work are her ferocious female characters. Prunella is half-‘foreign’ (uncovering her parentage being a peripheral storyline), with no prospects and absolutely no idea of how much is too much. She throws herself into situations that anyone with half an ounce of common sense would shy away from and pooh-poohs most of the strictures of polite society. She’s delightful, and she gets away with it all by combining wide-eyed naivete with a self-absorbed lack of regard for other people’s opinions. Prunella was made to tiptoe through Gothic corridors getting into trouble (although she’d probably frighten the monsters), or – as here – to storm the sensibilities of British Magic. She’s arguably a little too perfect – too bright, too pretty, too talented, too brave – but I was too charmed and giggling too hard to care.
She is a vivid contrast to poor, put-upon Zacharias, who is all woe and duty and has a deep dark secret to brood over besides. In deciding that women can and should be formally trained in magic and that Prunella will be his project, it’s painfully clear that he’s bitten off far more than he could chew even if he didn’t have so much on his plate already. It’s ironic that Prunella is (in non-magical ways) every bit as frivolous as England’s thaumaturges fear ‘females’ will be (GAH. But, this is also a book laughing in the face of sexism, so) as well as being a better magician than any of them.
In spite of her abundance of awesome, she’s still over-shadowed by Malaysian witch Mak Genggang whenever the cantankerous old lady is on-page. Genggang is a powerful, browbeating archetype who is determined to get what she needs from Zacharias and stymie the British government in their colonially-minded interference in Malay politics. If Prunella doesn’t much care for conventions, Mak Genggang simply doesn’t know they exist – she is a hurricane that storms through a scene, upsets everything in sight (and, inevitably, makes Zacharias’ life even more complicated).
Between the sorcerers manoeuvering to strip him of his staff, a fragile relationship with the Fairy Court, a magical situation even more complicated than it seems, a mysterious illness he tries to hide from everyone, and a highly talented young lady more intent on finding a husband than mastering the principles of thaumaturgy (Prunella thinks magic is great; learning less so), Zacharias has quite the challenge on his hands.
It’s sometimes silly, over the top stuff, and I had to be in the right mood to enjoy it. Thankfully, the writing is polished and Cho masters the mannered Regency dialogue with panache, happily removing what could have been a real stumbling block to enjoyment. She also sustains multiple inter-related plots and adds nuance around racism, sexism and colonialism without the whole thing feeling over-burdened. I liked the occasional darker touches – Cho has always blended sour with sweet in her short stories, and she’s not afraid for her protagonists to be ruthless (SPOILER (mouse over to read)Nidget!), which stops this being too saccharine however cosy it all feels (at no point did I think I was in for an unhappy ending, although I wasn’t sure how the challenges would be resolved).
I think Zen Cho is one to watch, and I’ll certainly watch out for the sequels. In fact, the more time passes between me reading this book and writing it up (ahem, I may have finished it a fortnight ago), the more I like it.