Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—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 … — [X]

Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is probably my favourite fantasy that is also my favourite historical fiction. I could try to love the book more, only I’d fail because my heart is already so full of love for it. Honestly, I’m glad it has those few bits of faerie and fairyland involvement so I can rave about it today!

First things first, even though this month is about fey folk, I won’t spend too much of the review on this aspect of the book. While it is all wonderfully done, it equally wonderful to experience it all first-hand, so I’ll be keeping the details to a minimum. There are two things you need to know about the relationship between faeries and sorcerers:

  1. Sorcerers run on borrowed magic, magic that originates from fairyland. Which is why Zacharias needs to speak with a faerie representative regarding the dearth of magic in England.
  2. Britain’s Sorcerer Royals distinguish themselves by the possession of (or partnership with) a familiar, also of faerie origins.

Now, the ton of England think it is already bad enough that Zacharias, the current Sorcerer Royal, is a black man who inherited the position after his guardian mysteriously died. The fact that he doesn’t have a familiar is just another reason to dispute any right he has to the title. So, while the majority of the book focuses on Zacharias and his Big Decision to bring change, some of the novel is dedicated to understanding why Zacharias is the way he is–something that Cho unfolds very delicately and cleverly.

As this careful unfolding is occurring, Zacharias has to deal with many a microaggression, lots of verbal abuse, and some physical assaults from people who would prefer that their fair nation remains, well, “fair”. Zacharias, who was raised to be a proper gentleman, handles the varying degrees of violence with unnatural patience and poise. It kind of kills me how poised he is and I kept wishing he’d break a chair on someone’s face, but I understand why he would choose to prove himself instead of lash out. That is not to say he is wholly accepting of his (frustrating) position in society–skilled enough to possess the Sorcerer Royal’s staff, and yet not person enough to respected–no, he is continually changing through the book and eventually does reach a point where his thoughts aren’t shrouded in polite rhetoric.

Complex characterizations are, apparently, Zen Cho’s strong suit because when Prunella Gentleman enters the scene–part Indian, part English sorcereress, also raised by a white English family–Zacharias  is, of course, drawn to her power and personality. But! He feels he can understand her because of his own similar position in society. Except, he fails to understand what it means to be both a woman and a person of colour. And Prunella is, by no means, just any woman. She is a woman with ambition and whether it’s running away from her boarding school, or dominating at parties, or listening to Zacharias talk about the scholarly aspect of magic, Prunella will do what it takes to get what she wants. It is funny to see the disconnect between Zacharias and Prunella, when really, they are both trying to play at a game that doesn’t really acknowledge them as players.

And while I absolutely adore Zacharias and Prunella–they are so awesome, I tell you–my favourite character has got to be Mak Genggang, a magician from Malacca, who comes to England to stop their meddling and to save her womenfolk. She is seen as savage and less than human, when in reality she is the most progressive and radical of them all:

“Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

Not only do I appreciate the way Cho subtly talks about how “minorities” aren’t all one amorphous lump, I also love how she talks about colonization and the language of magic. The book, written in the style of Regency era novels, carries much of the same biases as the people Zacharias and Prunella must deal with–indeed, some biases that they themselves carry. To have a character like Mak Genggang in this setting has the same effect as Hulk smashing through a library’s walls to teach you a thing or two about books. It’s pretty spectacular. As a matter of fact, the entire novel is spectacularly done. There may be a scarcity of magic in Cho’s England, but there is no such scarcity in her writing.

I cannot recommend this book enough and if I had the means I would buy each and every one of my followers a copy.