Pride and Prejudice and Magicians: Sorcerer to the Crown
It is fairer to judge a book by its title than its cover. An author’s ability to choose words is integral to both titles and books. But sometimes titles can be misleading. Imagine if Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was called something like The Magician of Destiny. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it, and it would have been my loss. Such was my reaction to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. I picked up and put down Sorcerer twice, once in an airport and once in the bookshop. I am glad I picked it up a third time, because it is far wittier and more interesting than its title suggests.
I deliberately reference Jonathan Strange because Cho herself cites it as one of her influences. Cho’s Sorcerer could be its postcolonial sister. Both books take place in a magical version of Regency England in which the English government is enmeshed in costly Napoleonic wars, and intent on slavery and empire. Magic is dwindling, and the magicians are self-important, bureaucratised, and riven by petty feuds. Both countries have difficult relations with Faerie and even worse relations with that other tricky and mysterious realm, France.
In Clarke’s Jonathan Strange the North of England is of great importance to magic: it is the home of the semi-mythical Raven King. In real life, however, the North is sidelined, and the South has disproportionate influence and wealth. Cho also carries out reversals, but she isn’t interested in the relationship between North and South England; rather, she focuses on gleefully overturning the prejudices based on race, sex, and class that pervade her magical society. In this world of establishment magic,Cho’s book is firmly on the side of the outsiders. This is as central to the book as spells and monsters.
Sorcerer to the Crown is a lot of fun, and I hope I can say that without sounding like I am dismissing it as not serious. Cho’s book is whimsical where Clarke’s is tinged with melancholy; the books share a wry humour but only Cho’s book made me laugh out loud. Strands of folklore from different traditions are woven through the book, including lamiae, the vampires of Malaysia; the siren lorelei of Germany; and British traditions about fairy-land. You can sense Cho’s sheer joy of invention, as she skips from dragons to cloud-riding to fashionable dresses to vampirism. It’s a shower of sparks in the sometimes stuffy library of fantasy.
The main character is Zacharias Wythe. Barely in his early twenties, all he wants to do is immerse himself in his studies. Instead, the role of Sorcerer Royal is suddenly thrust upon him. It’s a tough job, and it is complicated further by the fact that he is a freed slave in an 18th century England which is no less racist as the real world version. He must find out why the country’s supply of magic is waning, make a dangerous visit to Fairyland, and keep the English Government from starting a magical war with France. At the same time, fellow magicians are plotting to overthrow him; persons unknown are enthusiastically trying to kill him; and he is dogged by rumours around the death of his foster father, Sir Stephen, who was Sorcerer Royal before him. It is a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone someone as earnest and dutiful as Zacharias. But worse awaits: Zacharias must give a speech at a boarding school for ‘inconveniently magical’ young women.
Everyone in Zacharias’ world knows that young women are too frail to practice magic. Everyone that is, except the young women themselves, many of whom have unsuitably strong magical talent. Schools are set up to help these unlucky girls to quell their magical impulses, and it is one of these schools that Zacharias visits to give his speech. But, partly due to his own experiences of having to prove that people of colour could possess magical talent, Zacharias quickly recognises the danger and illogicality of suppressing magic in women. His sense of justice is as keen as his sense of duty: he sets out to end the ban on women practicing magic, and to make magical education accessible for all.
Here we meet Prunella Gentleman. She is introduced in the middle of a magical brawl, holding her own with her cobbled-together magic and enjoying herself immensely. Prunella runs rings around Zacharias and everyone else. She is an orphaned young woman who has grown up, like Sarah Crewe in A Little Princess, as a quasi-student, quasi-servant. And she possesses undeniable magical talent. She also has a priceless inheritance that could set her above all the magicians in the land.
To Prunella, magic is as unthinkingly natural as breathing. Yet her power will serve for nothing if she can’t escape the constraints into which she has been forced due to the triple whammy of her circumstances (as a woman of colour and without income in regency England). She does not have many options, so she sets about escaping her boarding school to find herself a rich husband. This, she hopes, will secure her the freedom and safety to pursue her life and practice her magic without interference. She needs to get to London, and Zacharias is her ticket. She convinces him to take her on as his student.
Zacharias is constrained by his very English sense of duty and propriety. Prunella, however, is never restrained by such considerations, although she is happy to make use of them in others. Charming and curious, she is also sufficiently shrewd, relentless, and unscrupulous to make short work of the establishment magicians Zacharias is too noble to properly deal with.
Zacharias’ relationship with his foster father Sir Stephen is one of the more complex strands in this book. Zacharias has spent his whole life feeling himself obliged to Sir Stephen for his kindness in rescuing him from a life of slavery. But the truth, when Zacharias allows himself to acknowledge it, is not as straightforward: Sir Stephen, perhaps, saw value in Zacharias not because he was human, but because of his magical talent.
The book creaks a little under the strain of the 18th century vocabulary, its plot is a little thrown-together, and the comedy of manners sometimes sits uneasily next to weightier issues. But these could be teething issues: this is Cho’s debut novel (her shorter stories are worth checking out, such as The House of Aunts, which is about teething issues of a different kind).
This is a book of both grit and sparkle. I would recommend it in particular to people who know that fantasy doesn’t have to be grimdark or pasty white. If you’re having a hard day and want to curl up with something funny and fantastical to escape it, then this is for you; if you want reminding that the bigger the odds against you, the more you have to you win, this is you as well.