Confession: I hugged this book close once I’d finished reading the last page. I wanted to absorb into my being, take it everywhere with me, show it off to everyone. Unfortunately, I sort of finished it on the day it was due so I had to give it back. But it’s one of those books that has earned my eternal love that I now have to buy my own copy. (Cos that’s the only reason to buy a book, duh).
Sorcerer to the Crown took the book blogging world by storm last year, and that’s when it caught my eye. Once I saw the words “Regency England”, “magic”, and “diverse characters” in a blog or review I had to hastily look away, because I knew that this book and I were going to become very well acquainted and I did not want to spoil a single thing for myself.
In case you couldn’t tell, the experience totally lived up to my expectations.
English magic is having a hard time of it. Magicians are struggling to perform spells, the Crown is at war with France, and is sneakingly requesting magical help, though this is technically forbidden. Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer himself, isn’t exactly enjoying himself at the moment. Not only is he struggling to find the reason for the depletion of England’s magic, he has to also struggle with the Society’s (the community of English magicians) censure about his right to hold the Sorcerer’s staff, as the death of the previous Sorcerer (who also happened to be his adopted father) was under very mysterious circumstances.
There’s also the fact that Zacharias is a black man. You add that into the mix, and suddenly Zacharias’s problems are two-fold. Zacharias’s position as Sorcerer is even more under threat with the Society questioning his eligibility to hold the staff, and latent racism rising rapidly to the surface.
Not only that, but since Zacharias agreed to speak at a girls’ school about magic, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly burdened with an orphan runaway by the name of Prunella Gentleman. Prunella, however, is no apathetic leech. Armed with the unhatched eggs of seven familiars (a treasure, indeed, in magically barren England) and the flimsiest of clues about her past, she concocts a plan to enlist the help of the Sorcerer Royal. Being half English and half Indian, Prunella knows the only way to secure a position in society is to marry well.
This story is described as a combination of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Georgette Heyer’s regency world. I would probably also add Diana Wynne Jones into the mix. I absolutely love the way that Cho describes the magic, and the way it’s used. It makes it seem very real and very practical, and not some unknown, inexplicable thing.
What’s more, Cho depicts the way magic is used to symbolize the complexities and inequalities of race, class and gender. Though Zacharias has the Sorcerer’s staff, his lack of a familiar sparks acidic conjecture within the Society, spurred very much by the darkness of his skin. Now that his father has passed away, he no longer has his protection against the vicious tongues of Regency society. English magic is also forbidden to women and the lower class. This, of course, makes Prunella’s position especially intriguing. Not only does she possess the magical familiars, her grasp on magic is very advanced, indeed, more so than a lot of the upperclass, male magicians. Oh, and the fact that menstruation actually strengthens her magic? Where has this book been all my life?
But it’s not all social commentary and no play. The story interweaves humour and wit beautifully. There were several instances where I found myself having a chuckle. In fact, I was pretty much grinning for the majority of this book. Seeing the various characters interact was a joy.
Prunella, though at times annoyingly impulsiveness, has resourcefulness and quick-thinking on her side to back up that impulsiveness. She’s whip smart, and I really loved that she was also allowed to take centre stage during the action. She has a lot of cunning on her side, and for an orphan, that’s always a handy characteristic to have.
Zacharias is a man after my own heart. After everything he goes through – being rescued from slavery by Sir Stephen, being grateful for this, while also resenting the fact that he never knew his own family; taking up the position of Sorcerer Royal though it is at the risk of his own happiness, well-being and peace of mind – it’s amazing that despite all of it he still manages to be composed, compassionate and kind. He has all the requisites for being a Brooding Hero(TM) and, yet, that never stops him from being a genuinely good person. It’s just nice to see that authors are not afraid to write romantic heroes in this way.
The book is fairly brimming with memorable secondary characters. What I loved most about this novel was that Cho really exercised the extent of the “fantasy” element – it’s a world with magic, and as such, magic has the power to connect people from all over the globe. And hallelujah! FINALLY an author who makes use of that. Honourable mentions go to Prunella’s mentor, Mak Genggang, a Malaysian enchantress, whose power and withering wit will make her an immediate favourite.
Just read it. You’ll thank yourself you did.