Sorcerer to the Crown: A fun Regency Fantasy with a heart

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho fantasy book reviewsSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

One would think being raised to the position of Sorcerer Royal — undisputed leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (i.e. magic-users) — would be something to revel in. But for Zacharias Wythe, being at the pinnacle of magic society isn’t all that fun. Mostly because that for many of the old white men who make up the Royal society, that “undisputed” part of the title doesn’t seem to apply if, like Zacharias, you’re black and a former slave. Then there are the assassination attempts, the mysterious decline in magic affecting England’s magic-users, the ghost of the former Sorcerer Royal (his former owner-turned-father-figure/sponsor whom some accuse Zacharias of murdering in order to obtain his position), a government that no longer accords the magicians their former respect (and that possibly suspects their waning power), and the constant background threat of Napoleon’s France. And, though he doesn’t know it yet at the start of the novel, he’s also about to have “women problems” both generally, as he tries to reform magical education to include women (another bolt in the quiver of those old white men trying to take him down), and specifically, in the form of a willful young woman (Prunella Gentleman) with more magical power than those “frail” females are supposed to display and a willful old woman from Malaysia who impresses both in her magical ability and her lack of “proper respect” to the British. In short, life is not easy for poor Zacharias.

In that quick summary, you can see a lot of what there is to like about Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. Mostly in that focus on issues of race, gender, class, and colonialism. And I really wanted to like Sorcerer to the Crown for those reasons, especially as those issues were handled in such smart, often bitingly efficient fashion. But much as I appreciated Cho’s handling of such seriously important topics, theme alone can’t carry a book for me, and thus the problems I had with plot, pace, and fluidity in the end made this a less than enjoyable read, especially in the latter part of the novel.

But let’s start with the positive of Sorcerer to the Crown, and as mentioned, that belongs to Cho’s deft handling of the social issues. One of the reasons this aspect works so well is that the issues aren’t handled simply by speechifying or through generalizations about situations and groups. Instead, we get a mix. A zooming out to take big picture looks at issues of empire, gender, etc. And a zooming in via small personal moments, intimately painful moments, that present hard-earned insights on the parts of the characters. Astute and concise, these sharply efficiently effective moments almost outweighed the more negative facets of the reading experience and I wish we’d had just a few more of them. A few examples:

“You need not shut yourself off from the world for fear of the few who might be so little-minded.”

But the world had given Zacharias little reason to believe that the sensible, as Lady Wythe termed them, outnumbered the little-minded, though he had not sought out opportunities to test the truth of her statement. He needed no further reminder of the peculiar loneliness of his position.

In truth, magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition, and profligate with its gifts to high and low.

Would Midsomer have treated with such high-handedness a Sorcerer Royal who was an Englishman? There was no need to ask the question. The answer had been made clear to Zacharias, in a multitude of ways, his entire life.

“I could be a sorceress seven times over, and still only hope to be some afflicted girl’s governess, tasked with scolding her out of her magic!”

His colleagues could deny his ability, and indeed often did, but Sir Stephen’s influence, his wealth and position, were harder to ignore, even after his death… he knew well enough these were the most potent argument for civility among his peers, and had often moderated their treatment of him.

“You will have to do without fresh magic, Mr. Wythe, unless you can persuade your monarch to refrain from interfering… He must take his chances if he intends to continue this uncertain business of Empire-building.”

Cho eschews the easy out of using a binary good-bad approach to these issues (for the most part), with the interactions among characters portrayed as realistically complex and nuanced. Zacharais, for instance, is torn between his honest love for Sir Stephen (and his widow) and his revulsion at their original act of purchasing him. His ongoing conversations with the ghost are often rife with internal tension (Zacharias is good at hiding his thoughts) thanks to this, as well as his disagreements with Sir Stephen over the education/role of women, Britain’s role in the world, and his own burgeoning sense of self-empowerment and individuality. Meanwhile, while Prunella seeks to escape the straitjacket of her life (through a good marriage, one of her few means of doing so), she’s shown as not without her own blinders, as when her adoptive mother decides to no longer allow her to mingle with the upper levels at the school she heads: “It was another thing altogether to be told she must have her meals in the kitchen and call the girls ‘miss’. Prunella was on cordial terms with the servants, but she had no wish to be counted among them.”

This exploration of social issues has a nicely layered implementation beyond the characters’ dialogue and interior monologues. Sir Stephen, the former Sorcerer Royal whose ghost remains to converse with Zacharias, is an interesting analogue perhaps to Britain as empire-builder. If Britain can claim, as it does, that it “gave” roads and trains and schools and hospitals etc. to its colonies, Sir Stephen can claim that he “gave” Zacharias a life of comfort, a chance to excel in education and magic, and in the end, a position (at least ostensibly) of power and influence, even as he became his mentor, sponsor, and loving adoptive father figure. Then again, one can’t simply ignore that he was also the one who purchased Zacharias as a small child, tearing him cruelly away from his true parents, or that his fathering also can loom as a painfully condescending paternalism. Similarly, we have a Fairyland whose “resource” of magic is being exploited, and references to vampires — both of which can be seen as metaphors for colonialism.

Other positive aspects of Sorcerer to the Crown include Prunella’s strong-willed and vivacious character, Zacharias’ much more low-key “civil” nature (though some might find him too low-key, especially when held up to the bright flame of Prunella), a few vividly original bits of magic, an old-style view of Fairyland, and some humor (though this was mixed. I did, however, enjoy the dragon with a monocle).

As for the negatives, well, there are more than a few. Fluidity was a big problem, with many abrupt shifts, some so jarring at times that I flipped back to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped a page or two. Pacing was an issue as well, with a few segments that lagged and an overall sense of a too-long length. Some of the humor felt forced and fell flat. A subplot involving a conflict on an island and Britain’s imperialism was too removed, too random, and too unsubtle (though the main protagonist in that storyline — a witch elder, was mostly a delight). And (I suppose I should just give up on this complaint since I mention it so often) the love aspect comes far too fast. But the two largest problems I had came with worldbuilding and the plotting in the latter part of Sorcerer to the Crown.

The world as created through the text felt thin to me. Magic, for instance, was never concrete enough for me — how it was performed, what was the cost, what were its limits, what was its role in the world. We get some hints to things (women using spells to stop food from boiling over), we see some magic performed, and some of the cost is explained toward the end, though I won’t go into that for spoiler reasons. But it never felt a cohesive, coherent whole, and in fact some parts seemed contradictory. If magic played a small role in events, I could overlook this, but it’s a pervasive and driving element in the narrative and so it seems a necessity to nail it down wholly.

Even then, while the book hadn’t really won me over, I was probably aiming at a 3.5 at about the three-quarters point, the last quarter or so just went off the rails for me. I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers, but some plot points came out of nowhere, there was a bit of a deus ex machina aspect to it, characters began acting a little too obtuse, some of the revelations I felt were cheaply held back, and it all felt too chaotic and rushed.

In the end, the basic craft issues for me outweighed the thematic strengths in terms of reading pleasure; I just wasn’t enjoying Sorcerer to the Crown for the most part and then it all took a real turn for the worse in the end. That said, because this is a debut novel, I’m a bit more willing to accept the idea that these flaws will be less pronounced in the promised sequel. And if Cho can continue to handle the more serious, more thoughtful aspects with the same level of quality while matching it to better crafted plotting, etc. then that second book has some real potential. Enough so that I’ll probably give it a shot. You might want to wait to hear how it goes.

~Bill Capossere


Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho fantasy book reviewsZen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown is a heck of a lot of fun.

A quick description of it may not sound like it, though. It revolves around the magician Zacharias Wythe as he negotiates his new position as Sorcerer Royal, which, in England, has become more of a political position than a magical one. He has to cater to the needs of the English government by helping them negotiate alliances, navigate the shifting politics of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and make appearances among the hoity-toity London upper crust. Unfortunately for Zacharias, he does not enjoy politics. His position is complicated by the fact that he took over the staff of Sorcerer Royal after the strange and unexplained death of his mentor and guardian, Stephen Wythe. Combined with the fact that Zacharias is a freed black slave, events seem to have conspired against him to make his position challenging, even dangerous.

The three central conflicts unfold, one after the other. England’s magic is draining away due to some unknown cause. England also needs to pacify Janda Baik, an island nation in the Malayasian archipelago, to maintain their foothold in the East against French incursions. To help out their Malaysian ally, Zacharias is asked to remove a contingent of female vampires who have been running amok in Janda Baik. Finally, the female magicians of England have been long ostracized from magical instruction or utility. Most English sorcerers are happy for this situation to continue unchanged, but Zacharias meets a young savant, Prunella. With the help of her inheritance (seven eggs of familiars, a rare and priceless commodity in a world lacking magic), she convinces him that women should be given access to magical education and even position.

As you’ll notice, all three of these problems have to do with England in some way: England’s power, England’s influence, England’s people and magical resources. Sorcerer to the Crown is as much a novel of the mundane realities of politics, national identity, and social institutions such as racism and sexism as it is about fairies, familiars, vampires, and other fantastical beings. But these institutions become villains every bit as frightening as the others. In fact, as Zacharias finds out, these enemies are harder to fight. He has a more difficult time being seen as an equal by the other sorcerers than he does getting out of the many assassination attempts set for him, like sentient flames and sucking puddles of death.

Some of the most disturbing moments in the novel happen in Zacharias’ mind, as he recognizes fundamental attitudes which will never change to accept him. He realizes, as his adopted mother does not, that he is not seen by the eligible young women of London as a potential mate. He is frustrated and hurt when young sorcerers whose careers he has helped are rude and dismissive in public. Prunella, too, recognizes the inequity that keeps her, a talented magician, in the position of governess and housemaid to more privileged young ladies.

So what is fun about Sorcerer to the Crown? Cho’s “fantasy of manners” has the wry wit and sparkling tone of a Regency novel. She lampoons both social mores and social frauds with the deftness of Austen or Dickens. Preening dandies, over-dramatic social-climbers, and backbiting politicians all feel the edge of Cho’s criticism.

The pace is also fun; once it gets rolling, the story moves from event to event at a breakneck pace. I agree with Bill that, at times, it seemed to move too fast and could have benefited from a few more beats or transition moments. But I always wanted to keep reading, to find out what happened next. In retrospect, I recognize some of the plot holes at the end that Bill references, but in the moment, they didn’t really bother me. I was enjoying it too much, too wrapped up in the fun of it.

To emphasize the lighthearted aspects, though, is not to say that Sorcerer to the Crown lacks a heart. The race, class, and gender struggles that Zacharias and Prunella encounter never feel as though they are there to make this “issue fiction.” They are seamlessly integrated into the characterization and world-building, and their delivery is so heartfelt and realistic that you can’t help but feel angry and sad and hopeless as well.

But to counterbalance the negative emotions are the positive emotions of warmth, love, and affection. Zacharias loves his mentor and guardians, the Wythes, and the friendship (and romance) that develops between him and Prunella is, dare I say, tender. As a sucker for tender, I really enjoyed the way Cho developed their relationship.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a series, and I’m excited to see what happens next. I hope we get to see more Fairyland, more of the world outside of England, and especially more of the four remaining familiar eggs that Prunella inherited.

~Kate Lechler

Publication date: September 1, 2015. In this sparkling debut, magic and mayhem clash with the British elite… The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession… At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, 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…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis of strengths and weaknesses here, Bill. Your review still makes me want to read it. I’ll be prepared.

  2. Yeah, I was more torn on my rating on this one than usual. To be honest, my guess is I’ll be in the minority on how low I ranked it, but as I said, the intellectual enjoyment due to the themes ws just so marred by the lack of enjoyment in the other aspects. I’ll be eager to see what you both think

  3. This is embarrassing, but I don’t remember the last time I read something “fun”…so I may have to scoot this one up the list a little.

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