Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown, diversity, PoC, British fantasy, Malaysian, supernatural, south east asian, magic, Jonathan strange and Mr Norrell, Regency England

First up, I want to say how beautiful is this cover of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown? Look at that gorgeous black and gold pattern! The cover of the book was the first thing that drew me to it – then the title Sorcerer to the Crown, which totally sounded like my kind of fantasy read – then the name of the author – Zen Cho, how cool is that name? And finally the premise sealed the deal: Zacharias Wythe has recently become Regency England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. But he faces a number of obstacles in his path including England’s declining levels of magic and an internal faction seeking to remove him from his position. 

It all sounds very Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and I am probably the one hundred and millionth person to comment on the similarities between the two novels, especially when Zacharias Wythe sounds kinda like what Stephen Black might have become if he ever chose to return to England. (Speaking of Stephen Black, I’ve always wondered what happened to Mrs Brandy? Did Stephen forget about her entirely when he went to Faerie? I like to think that he came back for her and they both went off to live happily ever in his kingdom! But would she ever be happy in Faerie? I can imagine between the pair of them they would keep Lost-Hope in spick and span order, what with his butler’s instincts and her greengrocer’s management!)

But back to Sorcerer to the Crown. I definitely picked up this book hoping this would help fulfill my yearning pangs for another book as good as Strange and Norrell. The beginning seemed promising, especially with the little twist that came at the end of the first chapter. However, in the next couple of chapters, it started to feel like things were running out of steam. The Jane Austen-style of writing which worked so well with Strange and Norrell began to feel a bit forced and laborious, and things started to drag to the point where I put the book down and wandered away and didn’t have any real inclination to go back to it. It wasn’t until I realized that I had a couple more days before I had to return the book to the library that I decided to sit down and try to finish it.

The book did start to pick up in pace as we moved closer and closer to the end. Zacharias Wythe is a character you definitely feel for, what with the number of pressures he’s under – he’s barely had time to mourn the loss of his benefactor and father figure, Sir Stephen, when he must take on the role as Sorcerer Royal. He faces opposition and unjust bias from a number of his peers mainly due to his skin colour, there is a plot against him, numerous murder attempts, he suffers regular bouts of mysterious pain, accusations that he killed his benefactor, he must figure out a way to fix England’s declining magic supply even as he faces yet more accusations that he is the very reason for this decline, he must settle political and diplomatic disputes, and on top of that he’s got to look after a wayward young female protégé and an equally wayward Malaysian witch. Whew! And he somehow manages to do all this while striving to be polite and fair and patient with those who are outrightly rude to his face. I’m telling you, the man is a saint and I was rooting for him all the way!

As for Prunella Gentleman, I’ve got mixed feelings about her. The heroine of the story, she’s a penniless orphan and a talented magician in an England where female magicians are oppressed and forbidden to use their powers. She’s also half-Indian, which is another count against her in Regency England. I admire her spirit, her practicality and her unwillingness to be daunted by her circumstances. But there just seems to be something about her that doesn’t quite invite sympathy or make her an easy character to like. Plus, she has a habit of scolding which I tire of quickly. Hey, Prue, guess what – no one likes a scold! There’s also something about the way London reacts to her that doesn’t quite ring true – she seems to get away with a lot more when it comes to her behavior and her mixed race status than, say, Zacharias would have. It doesn’t make sense when you think of what poor old Zach had to endure.

One thing that strangely did endear Prunella to me, though, was her ruthlessness, particularly what she did at the end which had an entire society of magicians turn pale – and shocked me too! Here, Prunella recognizes what she must do in order to keep her position – and though she willingly pays the price, she is nonetheless affected by it. I think it was a combination of this ruthlessness and vulnerability that finally endeared her to me.

They say writers need to be unkind to their characters and Zen Cho is definitely that – she throws no end of obstacles before Zacharias and Prunella, though once again Prunella somehow manages to evade all this a little better than Zacharias does. (My heart also goes out to Zacharias in a scene where he reveals Sir Stephen could have also released his parents from slavery but chose not to, mainly, it seems because it just didn’t occur to Sir Stephen it would be necessary to do so. I thought that was rather telling of the society they lived in.) The pressures both characters face definitely causes your heart to go out to them and have you rooting to let them find happiness.

Small note about diversity in books – this particular novel is full of it! Both protagonists are PoC and there’s a South East Asian touch that I enjoyed, with allusions made to the Achenese and Seringapatam, civilisations/places I used to study in history back in Malaysia, and also the presence of Malaysian witches/pontianaks. Hey, I’m Malaysian and I’m pleased to see our legends showcased! Mak Genggang, the Malaysian sorceress, is a definite standout in the book, though at times I found myself rolling my eyes that a woman who’s reputed to be so wise and powerful could also be  a tad bit dense when it comes to dealing with diplomatic relations.

One thing I didn’t enjoy was the fact that Sorcerer to the Crown does tend to get a bit corny with the magic at some points – for example, the murder attempts made on Zacharias just didn’t feel very believable or very dangerous, to be honest. Also, the climactic end of the book, while at times funny, felt a bit slapdash and, um, just a little too lighthearted. Zen Cho did a great job of building up her problems for her characters only to have them resolved so suddenly and easily that it left me wondering why the hell did I bother investing all that emotion in them because they managed to escape it all rather too neatly!

Overall, there were, as mentioned above, certain points that left me unsatisfied. Nonetheless Sorcerer to the Crown is a fun fantasy book and will appeal to all fans of Regency England fantasy or just something different to read. I’m left a little uncertain as to whether I would pick up another one of Zen Cho’s books – at this point, I’m not chomping at the bit to read her next book, but I think I could be easily convinced, depending on what the premise is.

A few spoiler notes: 

I find myself wondering toward the end why Zacharias would go live in the country – wouldn’t he face more oppression in the country than in the city? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to instead be starting his school for gentlewitches or to go looking for his parents?

How the hell did Miss Daubeney of the School for Gentlewitches ever come into contact with someone like Aunt Georgiana?

If I were Maria Wythe, I’d be hell pissed with Sir Stephen’s paltry excuse for not making himself known to me as a ghost. I don’t think there are many people out there who’d be so scared of ghosts that they would rather not have their recently deceased beloved visit them in ghost form. She’s highly courageous and liberal in every other way, why on earth would she freak out over him as a ghost? Besides, as wife to a sorcerer, you’d think that ghosts would be nothing to her, considering what else she’s probably bore witness to during their marriage.

Also, the way Prunella is able to bond her familiars to her makes me laugh, grimace a little – and raise my fist in a win for womenkind. I just hope it didn’t happen in the same way it did with Lestat and Dora in Memnoch the Devil.

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