JOINT REVIEW: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Dear Zen Cho:
Sunita: I’ve been a huge fan of your work since I read The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo a few years ago. When I heard that you were publishing a full-length novel I was really excited. Janine was also looking forward to Sorcerer to the Crown, so we decided to write a joint review.
The setting is a Regency England world which will look very familiar to romance readers, but which is also augmented by magic. Parallel to the regular government, an organization of magicians, here called thaumaturges, manages and deploys magic for Britain domestically and in her imperial endeavors. Magic is found in many countries, but it manifests itself differently (and in different groups) according to specific social histories and conditions.
In this world Napoleon is in power in France, but the thaumaturges of Britain and France have forsworn using magic against each other because of the terrible destruction it could bring. And as in the real world, Britain is engaged in expanding her imperial presence around the globe, especially in Asia. Britain also engages with the Fairy Kingdom, a powerful society ruled by the Queen and King of Elfland, which controls the availability of magic to human societies.
The Sorcerer Royal is young and new to the job, but even worse is the fact that he’s not descended from one of the great thaumaturgical or secular aristocratic families of Britain. Zacharias Wythe is an African who was adopted by Sir Nicholas Wythe and his wife; Sir Nicholas himself became Sorcerer Royal and upon his death Zacharias, an accomplished sorcerer himself, was reluctantly accepted as his successor. Zacharias is treated with disdain by most of society because of his race, although he does have a couple of important allies among the elite.
Zacharias is beset with challenges. At least some of his fellow magicians are out to sabotage him with murderous intent; the country’s supply of magic is dwindling and no one knows the cause; and the Government wants Zacharias’s help in a potentially explosive conflict in southeast Asia, which runs counter to his policy of limiting magical participation in politics.
While he’s grappling with finding solutions to these problems, he acquires another in the form of Miss Prunella Gentleman, an Anglo-Indian orphan with impressive magical abilities. After she saves Zacharias’ life, he agrees to mentor her in London and help her make an advantageous marriage, and the story takes off from there. The two of them, with the help of human, ghostly, and supernatural allies, develop Prunella’s magical gifts, try to solve the nation’s magic problem, and take on villains within their world and outside it. It’s an adventure-romp written in a sparkling, erudite style, but with plenty of serious issues interwoven with the lighthearted bits.
The most prominent of these serious issues are the way in which race, gender, and colonialism play a role in British society and politics. Zacharias and Prunella are neither white nor well-born, and despite their obvious gifts they are constantly undermined and demeaned by those who consider themselves their superiors. Despite being raised almost from infancy in Britain, they remain outsiders, and even Zacharias’ influential and loving parents cannot fully smooth his path to power.
Prunella suffers from a double handicap, because women have their own second-class status in British society, and their magical abilities are both restricted to household and other “trivial” tasks and treated as something innate. Men’s magic, on the other hand, is elevated to the level of philosophy and enhanced through scholarly learning.
There is also a strong theme of class inequality in the novel, which sometimes reinforces but at other times cuts across the race and gender divides. At points I felt that Zacharias’ class origins (or lack thereof) were as important as the color of his skin. For Prunella, the rumor that she is the daughter of an English aristocrat and an Indian high-caste mother makes her more acceptable to the Ton as a marriage partner.
Both Zacharias and Prunella recognize that non-elite British people are unjustly prohibited from engaging in thaumaturgy or other types of advanced magic, but in their daily lives they reinscribe class divisions. We learn very little about the everyday people in this world, and frequently they aren’t even given names. Prunella frequently thinks about the servants at her girls’ boarding school in general, abstract terms, and she rebels at the thought of being relegated to their level. Part of her revulsion stems from their unwillingness to accept her because of her Indian heritage, but part is clearly because she doesn’t want to be “merely a servant.”
Janine: I agree with this point. Class-consciousness is definitely an aspect of the novel, although the main characters don’t originate with Britain’s upper class. There is a nod to democracy in their plans for the future of English magic, but Prunella is a character who is both a social climber and and something of an heiress, and her inheritance is a way of passing down a certain position from one generation to another. The novel is both situated in the tradition of the English novel which is invested in the class system, while having a foot outside of it.
Sunita: That’s a great way to put it. We get outsiders as well as a rich supporting cast with whose types we’re familiar. The major and minor characters are all well written, even when they remind you of ones you’ve seen before. Zacharias is quiet and reserved to a fault, and he struggles with expressing emotion even in his thoughts. I found him appealing and sympathetic, but I can see why some readers have found him passive (I didn’t, but he can be read that way). Prunella, by contrast, jumps off the page, grabs the reader’s attention with both hands, and never lets go.
Janine: I didn’t find Zacharias passive either. While he was not as active as Prunella, he was constantly working on something or another in an effort to effect a change in his and Prunella’s situation, as well as England’s. He does this despite his retiring personality, and despite the fact that he never wanted the position of Sorcerer Royal (it was something his father wanted for him).
One of the most moving aspects of Zacharias’ character, in addition to the prejudice he faced, was his conflicted relationship with his parents, Sir Stephen Wythe (the former Sorcerer Royal, now a ghost only Zacharias can see) and Lady Maria Wythe. Although Zacharias loves them and they clearly love him in return, the difference in race and class serves as a barrier between them and there are feelings Zacharias keeps from them as a consequence. An additional, related, and painful conflict lies far in Zacharias’ past. That conflict gives Zacharias reasons to be angry with Sir Stephen and Lady Wythe, but he feels constrained from letting that anger out.
Sunita: Yes, that was one of the most poignant and effective parts of Zacharias’ storyline for me, and for the book overall. By contrast, Prunella’s situation engenders more sympathy in me than her personality and actions do, because she’s constantly making rash decisions and thinking only of herself. Until the very end, you never really see her suffer the consequences of her unthinking actions, and even then it’s more or less under her control. Nevertheless, her amorality and single-mindedness are almost endearing, and you can see why the other characters become fond of her.
Janine: I agree that Prunella’s situation — especially the way she is treated by Mrs. Daubeney, the woman who raised her but could not view her as her daughter — engenders more sympathy than her actions. But while in real life I might find her overbearing, in the context of this fictional narrative, I liked Prunella’s personality. For all her social climbing, the novel made me want to see a relative outsider like Prunella triumph over the aristocratic snobs. Her single-mindnedness, cleverness, and lack of scruples made me laugh at times, as did her outrageous statements.
Sunita: That’s a good point. She has a type of cheerful amorality which doesn’t feel as damaging as it might in a real person. And her approach serves a key purpose in the story, since she makes good, necessary decisions that Zacharias might not have been able to make.
Janine: Yes! They complement one another in that way. Zacharias acts as mitigating influence on her rashness and her tendency toward self-serving.
Sunita: My favorite character was the elderly Malayan magician-witch, Mak Genggang, who may be even stronger in personality than Prunella. Her storyline showcases the interconnectedness of British and Asian interests (historically and in the book), and it gives readers a taste of the originality and inventiveness of Cho’s other writing. Plus, she’s funny, scary, and impressive all at the same time.
Janine: Mak Genggangg was wonderful. I don’t want to say the novel came alive whenever she appeared, because it wasn’t dead at other times, but it felt as though it shifted into a higher gear when Mak Genggang was present. She has an outsize personality, even more so than Prunella, and though I haven’t read Cho’s other works, I agree that Mak Genggangg, as well as her plotline, felt original and inventive.
Sunita: The other secondary characters are also well drawn, and generally I found the non-human and non-British ones the most interesting.
Janine: They were more original. But even though Lady Wythe and Zacharias’ friend Damerell were less original, I liked them too, for the way they stood by Zacharias when much of high society had turned against him.
Sunita: The structure of the story and many of the characters are cut from the Regency Romance template and the science and magic will be familiar to readers of England-set fantasy. I’m not that familiar with English myths and stories about Fairyland, but from what I can tell the depiction here is in line with those.
Janine: I’m not that familiar with Fairyland stories and myths either, but this version of Fairyland struck me as somewhat different from the few other versions I’ve read.
Sunita: The book has frequently been described as a fantasy version of Georgette Heyer, or as Georgette Heyer meets Susanna Clarke, in the words of a blurb on the cover of the book I read. I assumed that was shorthand designed to situate the novel for readers, and it is clearly meant as a compliment. Indeed, I described Cho’s novella as recalling Heyer and Wodehouse in my DA review, because of the witty, comedy-of-manners style employed.
Janine: Sorcerer to the Crown is written in past tense omniscient voice, and the style is rather formal but humorous, in a way that calls to mind Clarke, Austen and Heyer.
Sunita: This book goes much further than Cho’s novella in its similarity to Heyer, to the extent that I frequently had scenes and characters from specific Heyer novels in my head as I was reading. The secondary characters, including one named Damerell (yes, Damerell) are very similar to Heyer’s young male supporting characters (think Friday’s Child or April Lady). There are brief scenes with gossipy, unpleasant matrons of the type you find in almost every London-set Heyer book. Prunella’s friend Sophy read to me as quite similar to Freddie Standen’s married sister in Cotillion, and even Prunella and Zacharias feel more like pastiches of Heyer characters than original creations. Zacharias reminded me a lot of Gilly in The Foundling, and Prunella was mostly Sophy Stanton-Lacy with dashes of Arabella Tallant and maybe Eustacie from The Talisman Ring. The dialogue and general writing style are so similar to Heyer’s that some of the dialogue tags and set-pieces threw me back to specific passages in her books (which I have apparently memorized).
As a result, the authorial voice I found so fresh and original in Cho’s other writings felt muted, buried in Heyerese. The one place where that didn’t happen was in the scenes with Mak Genggang, and in one shocking scene at the end of the book. Those felt utterly like Cho and no one else. In most of the rest of the book, the pastiche element was enjoyable (and the writing really does sparkle), but I don’t read Cho for her similarity to other authors, I read her for her original contributions.
Janine: I think I’ve read less Heyer than you; just eight of her novels with no rereads and that was over a decade ago. Even so, I recognized the name Damerell from Heyer’s Venetia, and Prunella did remind me a bit of Sophy from The Grand Sophy. I appreciated that she wasn’t as “managing” of others as Heyer’s Sophy, though. I didn’t get thrown back to specific passages from Heyer, but I did recognize the similarity of some of the jokes.
Where the novel departed from that was in its fantasy aspect. The beginning was also very similar to that of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and at first I feared the book would be too similar to that novel for my liking, but with Prunella’s introduction into the storyline it took off in a different (and as you say, Heyeresque) direction.
I wonder if Cho’s intention was to riff on Clarke and Heyer and to interrogate Heyer’s tendency to marginalize and stereotype characters of color, but at the same time, I wish that I hadn’t been quite so strongly reminded of Heyer and Clarke because occasionally those reminders were jarring.
Sunita: I put the Clarke aside mid-book years ago, but after finishing Sorcerer I went back and started it from the beginning, and I agree that there are some striking similarities. For readers who don’t have as much of Heyer’s or Clarke’s prose rolling around in their head, this may not be an issue, as long as the stylized, ornate language isn’t a barrier.
Janine: I didn’t find the prose style here as dense and difficult to get into as Heyer’s was at first, so perhaps other readers won’t, either.
Sunita: This is a book that embeds uncomfortable issues within a familiar, comfortable setting. It’s a great adventure, and if the romance isn’t altogether satisfying (there is an HEA but it comes at the very end and very quickly), the rest of the story makes up for it.
Janine: Although there is an early attraction between Prunella and Zacharias, the romance doesn’t really take off until the novel’s second half. This is first and foremost a fantasy novel, but it’s more romantic than many of those. The romance wasn’t as romantic as some of Heyer’s or as many genre romances are, but it was touching in places, and one thing I appreciated about it was the gender role reversal: that Prunella was the ambitious character, while Zacharias was the reserved, retiring one.
Sunita: I enjoyed that aspect too. I’ll certainly keep reading everything Cho writes, but I hope that the next installment in this series showcases her singular (and wonderful) voice more effectively. Grade: B.
Janine: I haven’t read Cho’s other works yet, but I concur on the voice. I wasn’t sure whether this one was part of a series or a standalone. It read like it could easily be either one. As for a grade, mine is a bit higher: B/B+.