Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Fantasy of Manners
Publisher: Ace on September 1, 2015
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
My thanks to Ace and NetGalley for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
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.
Zacharias Wythe is having the worst year. Thrust into the position of Sorcerer Royal, England’s chief magic-wielder, the shy and retiring young man has unenthusiastically become the center of attention. And that attention is not positive, for there are few who will quietly accept a black man as their venerated Sorcerer Royal.
When Zacharias is invited to give a speech on the dangers and uses of magic at a boarding school for gentlewitches, he gladly seizes upon the opportunity to escape the fracas in London. At the school he encounters Miss Prunella Gentleman, an employee slash indentured servant working at the school. Zacharias and Prunella immediately connect – at least on a magical level. The Sorcerer Royal is shocked by how powerful the mixed-race young woman is, and the ruthlessly practical Prunella capitalizes on this and leverages her abilities to help her escape drudgery in the country.
Prunella believes that London will be all parties, and soirees, and flirting – and it is, at least somewhat. But there is a spectre looming over England, one that may signal the end for Zacharias and Prunella. For magic is dwindling in England, and those who practice it are getting scared. Fairyland and Fae familiars are the source of considerable magic, but diplomatic relations between the English and the fair folk have been strained. A hundred years ago, it was common practice for men to slip through the magical border to Fairyland and return with a familiar. But Fairy grew tired of this practice (go figure) and closed their borders to all but a select few. Zacharias must unearth the connection between England’s dying magic and the tensions with the Fae, or he may lose more than just his position as the Sorcerer Royal…
Zen Cho’s world building in SORCERER TO THE CROWN is fantastic: she combines elements from traditional fairytales with classic comedy of manners tropes and infuses them with her own interpretation of a decidedly more global perspective on magical systems. I loved seeing the representation of people of colour in this novel, particularly given the Regency setting. As sad as it is, the oppression and outright malice that Zacharias – and to a lesser extent Prunella – experiences is very realistic and added palpable tension to the central plot of the novel.
While Prunella experiences less direct prejudice than Zacharias, she is not blind to it, and often comes to Zacharias’ defense when he is slighted. Her frenetic energy combined with her relentless pragmatism and single-minded determination make for a lovable protagonist; I can safely count Prunella among my favourite heroines of 2015.
Prunella is obviously a great heroine, but I was pleased to see that she wasn’t the only magically adept or otherwise badass woman in SORCERER TO THE CROWN. The sorceress Mak Genggang from the island nation of Janda Baik (a power that is resisting English colonial efforts) was a particular favourite of mine. Mak Genggang teaches Prunella spells that English magic either doesn’t know or understand, empowering her to learn more about her parentage…and where all the magic inside her comes from.
Plus, there was a hilarious party-crashing incident wherein Mak Genggang almost took someone’s head off with a dagger at the event of the season. Whoops! I honestly laughed so hard during that scene.
If you like your books witty, fun yet political, and you don’t mind some challenging vocabulary, then SORCERER TO THE CROWN is the book for you.