Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is a difficult book to review, simply because it feels like whatever I write, it will eventually and unavoidably simply collapse into one long list of everything that I love about this novel. To start off and hopefully get it out of the way: Sorcerer to the Crown is a highly atmospheric, beautifully written and wonderfully humorous novel.
Cho has created a parallel version of 19th century England where magic flows into the country through the border to Fairy and has become an area of occupation and study for upperclass men. White men, naturally, since they, it is believed, are the only ones with the prelediction to handle it. One of the novel’s two protagonists is Zacharias Wythe who, as a child, was purchased by Sir Stephen, the Sorcerer Royal, to be brought up and taught thaumaturgy to be the example that disputes the fact that magic is solely the domain of white men. As a result, Zacharias has spent his entire life battling prejudice and discrimination, which only intensifies when he, after Stephen’s mysterious death, becomes the Sorcerer Royal to the chagrin of the British magical elite.
One thing I think Cho handles very well in the novel is the relationships between Zacharias and the people of the world he has rather forcefully been brought into - particularly when it comes to those with whom he has loving or friendly relationships. While Zacharias holds deep affection for Stephen and his wife, he is simultaneously very conflicted by the fact that they basically ripped him away from his parents and paraded him around the Magical Society in England as some sort of circus show. This aspect of the novel also becomes apparent in the way Zacharias is treated by those who love him - most succinctly and painfully exemplified perhaps by the nurse who cared for him deeply, but at the same time encouraged him to be extremely nice and polite towards his adopted parents because she surmised it would be harder for them to love a black child. Cho skilfully portrays the power imbalance and heavily ingrained racism that remains very much in effect within these social configurations and the complexity with which it operates within them and how Zacharias is forced to deal with it on a daily basis without making it the extent of his story or development.
This also holds true for the novel’s second protagonist - the young woman Prunella who was taken from India as a child by her white father who quickly died afterward and left her in the care of a mistress for a school teaching gentlewomen with an unfortunate knack for magic to suppress their abilities. She has been taught her entire life to be grateful that someone was kind enough to take care of her despite her “native” appearance and limited connections - a notion that she forcefully rebels against. While all of Cho’s main characters are interesting in their own ways, Prunella is definitely my favorite. I haven’t read any other reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few won’t refer to Prunella as a ‘Mary Sue’ - a moniker she would never be in danger of receiving if she had been a male character. She is strong-minded, endlessly pragmatic and hellbent on getting her way. She also most often do get her way - she is extremely powerful, in a myriad of ways: through magic, cunning and sheer bloody-minded determination.
Sorcerer to the Crown is a novel about triumphing against racist and sexist power structures and against those who would gladly capitalize on these for their own personal gain. It is a great fantasy read, particularly if you, like me, have a soft spot for critical discussions of race and gender, imaginative magical systems, subtle, well-written humour, and wonderfully wicked witches. "A witch is always appropriate whatever her attire" are certainly words to live by.