|SORCERER TO THE CROWN
Zen Cho (zencho.org)
Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.
Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.
When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.
For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.
Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.
Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.