Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is the author’s first full-length novel. Set in an alternate Regency-era Britain where the Society of Unnatural Philosophers as the official, government-sanctioned body in charge of shepherded English Magic and English Wizards. Due to the unfortunate death of his former mentor the emancipated slave Zacharias Wythe has become Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias’ unwillingness to speak about the nature of his mentor’s death combined with the color of skin make him a fast target of many of his fellow ambitious sorcerers. Meanwhile, Prunella Gentlewoman is a brash young woman who works for a special school for women with magical gifts; a school where young women learn to suppress their magical gifts in order to be proper ladies. Orphaned at young age Prunella is not very scrupulous when it comes to using her own abilities and the chance discovery of some of her father’s personal effects changes the course of her life.
I don’t often take time to talk about the decisions made regarding cover art but I want to point out here that, while attractive, the cover to Sorcerer to the Crown does the book a huge disservice. While it does a somewhat okay job at conveying the era in which the novel takes place it does a fairly terrible job at conveying the tone of the novel. While Sorcerer to the Crown might brush up against some serious subjects, gender roles and bigotry, the novel is extraordinarily light-hearted with a strong comedic undercurrent. This is particularly evident in Zacharias’ introduction to Penelope as he arrives to find a room full of girls in the midst of what amounts to a magical cat fight with Penelope essentially holding one of her charges in a headlock. Penelope is the kind of woman who willfully ignores the limits and constrictors placed upon her by society, much to the chagrin and frustration of those around her, often to rather amusing results.
The magical nature of the narrative and the setting have brought some comparisons to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. However, whereas Clarke’s novel works to pay homage to the eighteenth century British novel, Cho’s novel has a more modern sensibility when it comes to pacing. As such the two novel, outside of setting, don’t really compare. Both novels borrow elements from the comedy of manners but Sorcerer to the Crown leans far more heavily on elements of slapstick and absurdism. By and large Sorcerer to the Crown just feels like a far lighter novel. It’s breezy 371 pages feel all the shorter thanks to the entertaining dialogue, wicked plot, and its sheer entertainment value.
While there are certainly times that I wished Cho had slowed down some to explore her setting she does manage to give readers glimpses of the world of magic beyond Great Britain. It would endlessly fascinating to see a nations of the world style collection of vignettes. Our sole glimpse of a non-English magician manages to be one of the most entertaining characters in the whole novel. Given the prominence of gender in the novel seeing how other nations handle those same issues shine a damning light on the Society within the novel. This could be even more fascinating given the near synonymous nature between the word witch and female; particularly during the era depicted in the novel. Likewise, I would love to see more exploration of the Faerie courts in the novel as what we do glimpse is both terrifying and endlessly entertaining.
Many people have (including myself) and many more will compare Sorcerer to the Crown to Regency-era set works both within and outside the realm of the fantastic. However, Sorcerer to the Crown is a novel that stands upon the strength of characters (both major and minor) and the depth of its setting (even if we only glimpse it piecemeal). Sorcerer to the Crown is a novel that I never ceased to find charming.