Sorcerer to the Crown
by Zen Cho
In Sorcerer to the Crown, comedy of manners meets fairyland, and the result is pure unadulterated fun. The story takes place in an alternate reality where magic, once a primary occupation in the best of families, is slowly falling out of favour as England’s atmospheric magic dries up. While the nonmagical part of society may be preoccupied by their victories and failures in the Napoleonic war, magical society is engrossed by scandal. Sir Stephen, the old Sorcerer to the Crown, has died under mysterious circumstances, his familiar has disappeared, and the man who has taken up the staff is none other than an emancipated slave Sir Stephen picked up on his travels and raised as a thaumaturge. Zacharias himself never wanted to be Sorcerer to the Crown; he’d much rather continue his research into restoring England’s atmospheric magic. Instead, his new role throws him into imperialistic politics, plots against his life, meetings with the Fairy Court, and, most frightening of all, giving a speech at a school of gentlewitches on the dangers of magic.
Sorcerer to the Crown is definitely a comedy of manners, and I think it very successfully integrates some shoutouts to authors such as Austen, Wodehouse, and even Hornug. Although the entire sequence of events is triggered by a speaking visit to a girl’s school (Yes, I see what you did there), the greatest influence upon style and plot is definitely Austen. I’m not generally fond of Austenesque alternate magical realities, but Cho really did her research and has created a charming book with much of the amusing commentary as the authors she references:
”Can you conceive of anything more absurd? [...] He might as well seek to persuade us that a pig can fly--or a woman can do magic!”
The friend observed that so could pigs fly, if one could be troubled to make them.
“Oh, certainly!” replied the first. “And one could teach a woman to do magic, I supposed, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?”
It’s been over a decade since I’ve read it and the book is exceedingly dim in my memory, but I think if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and are (still) waiting anxiously for the sequel, Sorcerer to the Crown is definitely worth a look. From my very vague recollections and a helpful recap from a friend, there are certain similarities in the plot, including the heavy focus on parties and politics and the ways in which these familiar themes are altered by the presence of magic. Sure, Regency or Napoleonic fantasy stories are dime a dozen, but I think Cho’s story is elevated from the rest of the rank and file by her examination of political issues surrounding racism and sexism. In Zacharias’s world, women are considered “too delicate” for magic, and are strongly discouraged from practicing it. The other major character, the “inconveniently magical” Prunella, is forced to make a decision between practicing her craft and finding a functioning place in society, and she is coldly pragmatic about her options. Both Prunella and Zacharias are pioneers for their minority in the area of magic, and Cho deftly presents the pressures they face to be “model minorities.” Zacharias, in particular, has been subject to endemic racism all his life, exoticised, belittled, and dismissed. Sir Stephen’s advice to him was always to simply take it, to never lose his courtesy, and to outperform and defy expectations. Cho touches upon the stifling weight of responsibility that Zacharias lives under. As he says at one point,
I would not have been rescued from my bondage if not for Sir Stephen’s conviction that he could make of me something extraordinary. I was told that I must prove the African’s ability to English thaumaturgy.
As a pioneer in diversity, Zacharias is tasked with the responsibility of the magical reputation of his entire race. Prunella faces similar issues, but she is far less willing to accept such an unfair burden and instead uses all the ”amoral ingenuity” she possesses to remove such obstacles in her path.
If you’re looking for a gentle, often silly story of Napoleonic-era magic that still manages to dip into some more interesting themes, then Sorcerer to the Crown is definitely worth a look.
~~I received an advanced reader copy through Netgalley from the publisher, Penguin Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~