Harsh Truths, Attired Appropriately – A Review of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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It has been quite a few years since I last read Susanna Clarke’s massive fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I have some very fond memories of reading it: late weekend nights slowly turning over the pages, letting myself sink into Clarke’s language, taking the time to read the footnotes as thoroughly as possible, since one of my friends had hinted that the footnotes were especially important in understanding what was happening in the novel. (This is very true, but I will not say how, in case the reader of this review hasn’t read Clarke’s book yet.)

However, it is the farthest thing from an easy read – especially if one is not comfortable with the style of such writers as Dickens, Austen, and Wharton. Many potential readers have been put off by both the heft of the book and Clarke’s language, but readers who persevered were rewarded with a deep and rich story that included memorable characters, rich world-building, and an intriguing (albeit somewhat slow) plot. Many now consider Clarke’s novel a classic, one that has opened the way for such series as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories.

So, when Zen Cho’s novel Sorcerer to the Crown was announced, accompanied by a steady stream of hype, I was intrigued – not least because much of that hype was coming from authors whose books I loved and whose authority I trusted. My interest deepened when comparisons were made to Clarke’s novel: it was the kind of thing I enjoyed, after all, and since I was coming off the disappointment of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, I believed I deserved something that would just work.

Fortunately, Sorcerer to the Crown really does work, though not necessarily in the way Jonathan Strange does. Some of the comparisons drawn between the two are justified, but Sorcerer to the Crown is the very farthest thing from “a second Jonathan Strange” – particularly since it does some things much better.

Set in the early 1800s, Sorcerer to the Crown opens with Zacharias Wythe, England’s Sorcerer Royal, pondering the question of why English magic seemed to be running dry. However, that is not the only problem Zacharias faces, for he is a black man leading a society of white men, and his position as Sorcerer Royal is precarious at best. He is aware that it won’t be long until someone comes along to topple him from his place for no other reason than that he is black, but in the meantime, he has his duty, and he will do his duty to the best of his ability while he can.

In his quest for answers he meets Prunella Gentleman, a young woman with a mysterious background and a wellspring of power even he does not fully comprehend. When their paths cross they find themselves on a journey that will bring immense changes to both English magic, and English society.

On the surface, Sorcerer to the Crown and Jonathan Strange are very similar: the storyline regarding English magic is remarkably similar in both books, as is the role and qualities of Fairyland (the font of magic in both novels, populated by denizens who do not necessarily have humanity’s interests at heart). The language is also rather similar, though Cho trends more towards Austen than Dickens.

But that is where the similarities end, for Sorcerer to the Crown is an entirely different beast from Jonathan Strange. One key difference is a sense of lightness: where Clarke’s novel is ponderous (some would say plodding), Cho’s moves along at remarkably fast clip. It does get bogged down from time to time, but it doesn’t do so often, and even those slower moments in the plot are enjoyable for the insight they give about the world, or the characters, or both.

A great deal of the charm of Sorcerer to the Crown comes from its characters, and the way Cho has built those characters to go against the reader’s initial expectations. In the beginning it seems clear to the reader that Zacharias is the hero of the novel. As a black man in a position of power, in a world where racism clearly holds sway, he appears to make a most interesting main protagonist, with the potential for all kinds of thematic commentary on race, power, and class relevant to the novel’s setting.

However, it soon becomes obvious that he is not the main protagonist at all – not in the traditional sense, at least. He is shy, retiring, and does not enjoy being in the spotlight: in fact, he admits that the position of Sorcerer Royal, so coveted by those around him, feels more like a burden than a privilege, as this excerpt shows:

”Zacharias,” said Prunella. “Did not you want to be Sorcerer Royal?”

She sounded astonished, as if the alternative had never crossed her mind before.

“I have found that opportunity brings with it its own set of chains,” said Zacharias, after a pause. “That power generates demands which cannot easily be gainsaid—as you are learning now, I think.”

In many ways, the true star of Sorcerer to the Crown is Prunella. Not only does she engineer her own escape from a life she despises, but she sets ambitious goals for herself – and then proceeds to find ways of achieving those goals using methods that Zacharias finds scandalous, but which undeniably work. In this, Prunella, more than Zacharias, shows the dash, daring, and fortitude the reader would expect from the more traditional (white, male) “intrepid hero” generally found in novels with plots similar to Sorcerer to the Crown.

But what makes Prunella even more fascinating (and even more enjoyable to read about) is that she applies those qualities in pursuit of more “feminine” things, such as coming-out in London society and gaining the approval of the ton: things generally considered the purview of ladies and effete society dandies. Far from being dismissive of them, Prunella clearly views them as a way of getting ahead in the world, despite her skin colour and questionable origins:

Prunella took to the ballrooms of London in the spirit of ruthless calculation of a general entering a battlefield. Within a week she had marked out the Lady Jerseys and Countess Esterházys of the world, who wielded the most influence among the ton, and she laid herself out to please them. She took no notice of the numerous gentlemen who promptly lost their hearts to her.

“I shall not soon stop being pretty and saucy,” she explained, “so I need not worry about losing the interest of the gentlemen. But I must have the good opinion of the women, for their word is all the capital I have, and I am lost if they take it into their heads to disapprove of me.”

Note how Cho describes Prunella’s approach to society as “a general entering a battlefield”: a description that might usually be ascribed to a male character, doing “manly” things, but in this case applied to a young woman, doing “feminine” things. The contrast is small, subtle, and will probably go unnoticed by some readers, but in my opinion it is these small details and little inversions of convention that make Sorcerer to the Crown such a delightful read.

Indeed, Cho ascribes many characteristics to Prunella, such as ambition and ruthlessness, that are often considered deplorable when they are displayed by women, but which are considered praiseworthy in men. Take, for example, this excerpt:

”Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

There are many other scenes in which Zacharias shows displeasure and discomfort in Prunella’s ability to put aside “finer feelings” if it means she will achieve her goals, but the above excerpt is the one that most clearly shows Prunella’s own opinion on the matter: she does not care, and will do what she needs to do in order to achieve what she feels she needs to achieve. This all comes to a head in the novel’s climax, when Prunella has to make a very hard decision, but it is a decision she clearly makes with her head, not with her heart. It is not often I find female characters who display such tendencies, and moreover, whose ruthlessness and ambition are portrayed as good qualities to have; seeing Prunella have such qualities while still being what might be considered a “good” person is a pleasure indeed.

Another major difference between Sorcerer to the Crown and Jonathan Strange is how it treats English history during the time period they are set in. Jonathan Strange is intensely insular, focused on England itself; the fact that England was building a globe-spanning empire is not the novel’s central focus, and issues of race and colonialism remain on the periphery, or are ignored entirely.

Sorcerer to the Crown however, is different: it is entirely aware of England’s history of colonialism, and this is put front and centre in the novel. But what is interesting, and quite pleasing, about Cho’s approach to the matter of colonialism, as well as to issues like racism, classism, and feminism, is that she does so with a relatively light touch. Sorcerer to the Crown deals with such things overtly, but in tackling these issues Cho does not sacrifice the overall plot, or its overall speed. The clearest instance of this would be that the protagonists are not part of the establishment (Zacharias is an emancipated slave, while Prunella is a half-Indian orphan), but there are also other, smaller moments throughout the novel wherein Cho tackles these issues head-on – most of the time in a humorous manner, but there are moments when it can turn remarkably poignant. Take, for instance, this excerpt, where Zacharias considers how to answer Prunella’s question regarding why he hasn’t tried to go looking for his parents, even though he now has the means to do so:

“What might [Zacharias’s] life have been, with a father and mother? It could not have cost Sir Stephen very much to purchase them as well—certainly not enough to strain his ample resources. How could his benevolence have extended so far as to move him to free Zacharias, but no further?

But it had been impossible to ask these questions of Sir Stephen or Lady Wythe, whose affection could not be doubted. That Zacharias’s own love for them was leavened with anger was best left unsaid; he tried not to know it himself.

“Very probably I would have been separated from my parents in any event,” he said. “What assurance can I feel that my parents were not in time separated from each other, against their will, and they powerless to prevent it?”

The answers to those questions were too painful to pursue to their conclusion, even in thought. They had only ever served to increase the complicated unhappiness that lay in wait whenever he thought of his parents.

In this excerpt, Cho tackles the effects of England’s slave trade on its victims while at the same time deepening Zacharias’s characterisation, and in doing so intertwines a particularly dark period of history with an emotionally complex character backstory – a trick that few writers can accomplish with the same ease Cho does.

Overall, Sorcerer to the Crown is a delightful read: one that is entertaining and funny, while still dealing with weightier issues the reader might encounter in more serious science fiction or fantasy novels. Cho addresses those issues with a light, but not condescending, touch, ensuring that her plot continues to move at a fairly quick clip, rarely slowing down until it reaches the climax. The language may take a bit of getting used-to, especially if one is not entirely familiar (or comfortable) with the conventions of Austen and Dickens, but it is no great hurdle to overcome once the plot really gets going.

But if the novel has any true highlight, it would definitely have to be the characters: funny, endearing, and loveable in unexpected ways – after all, readers do not expect themselves to think fondly of a lamia, of all things, and yet it is highly likely they will find themselves siding wholeheartedly with one by the time they are halfway through this novel. I certainly did.

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