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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Book Name: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Publisher(s): Ace (US) Macmillan (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: September 1, 2015 (US) September 10, 2015 (UK)

One of my most anticipated books of this year comes out on September 10th – you may have seen people like Naomi Novik, Lavie Tidhar and Ann Leckie lauding Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Or you may have seen the finished hardback, which is beautifully covered in enough gold foil to make a dragon want to put it in its hoard. If you haven’t heard of it yet, rest assured you will be hearing about it over the next year.

In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. He leads the eminent Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but a malicious faction seeks to remove him by fair means or foul. Meanwhile, the Society is failing its vital duty – to keep stable the levels of magic within His Majesty’s lands. The Fairy Court is blocking its supply, straining England’s dangerously declining magical stores. And now the government is demanding to use this scarce resource in its war with France.

Ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman is desperate to escape the school where she’s drudged all her life, and a visit by the beleaguered Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it.

At his wits’ end, the last thing Zachariah needs is a female magical prodigy! But together, they might just change the nature of sorcery, in Britain and beyond.

This book is officially my ‘happy place’ book. It’s an alternate-history Regency era London with magicians, fairies and a huge amount of fun. Though it starts off a little slowly, it turns into a rollicking, action-packed read, and it’s also a razor-sharp examination of England’s colonial ambitions and the relationships it had with its territories. The complex protagonists are both beautifully drawn, and the way they play off each other evolves naturally; Zacharias is solemn, clever and kind, while Prunella’s confidence, ruthlessness and impulsiveness drags both him and the plot along marvellously.

The kerfuffle surrounding the Hugos all came down to a stubborn insistence on the claim that there was little place for politics in SFF, and that it sucked all the entertainment out of SFF. Of course, SFF has always had politics as a major theme in many of its most seminal works – how could it not, when things like magic and new technologies are essentially resources of power? How could it not feature politics when politics affects every aspect of everyone’s lives? And when power and advanced sentient beings are involved, politics will, sooner or later, come into play.

Zen understands this fundamental point and explores it thoroughly. Magic is a resource and a weapon; putting an institution of magic in the Regency era, when the British Empire was on the rise and slavery was still in practice throughout the Empire, means that politics weaves itself throughout the novel. Who her protagonists are is fundamental to this.

The US cover is more Dragon-y

The US cover is more Dragon-y

As a black freed slave in a position of power and visibility, Zacharias faces opposition and racism at every turn, while his attitude to the man who freed him is complicated by what happened to his enslaved parents. Prunella, meanwhile, with her half-Indian parentage and lack of family or money, is deemed dangerous because she is a woman with prodigious magical talent. As they make their way through society and adversity, astute observations on race, class and gender arise naturally and thoughtfully, and watching Prunella causing mayhem with Zacharias’ help is all the more joyous for knowing how much it vexes those in power.

In addition to the shrewd comments about society, Sorcerer to the Crown is easily the MOST FUN I’ve had reading so far this year, and it’ll be hard for another book to beat it.

Zen packs so much into this novel, it could easily have been another 200 pages long (I wouldn’t have minded at all, it’s that delightful). Bickering magicians, a magical boarding school for girls, a visit to the Fairy Court, CRANKY INTERFERING WITCH AUNTIES (my favourite kind of aunties!), indignant foreign ambassadors, romance, and dragons! It’s a treasure trove of the fantastical, all of which Zen somehow fits together effortlessly.

I was especially delighted to see a few creepy supernatural beings from Malay folklore play their part in the novel – after all, why shouldn’t the Fairy Court and English magicians encounter magical creatures and magicians from other countries?*

Zen clearly loves the Regency era, and makes use of its ridiculous high society posh people to great effect. Supporting characters like Damerell and Rollo (who is now my favourite society dandy) are perfect in their gossipy waspishness and spoilt amiability. The Fairy Court also has its share of ludicrous behaviour, and the fact that many of them are creatures like dragons makes it all the more hilarious.

Excitingly, there will be two more books in the Sorcerer Royal trilogy (though this one stands alone just fine). If you want wit, a fun fantasy romp, some Regency era romance, a veritable bestiary of magical creatures, brilliant characters and some shrewd geo-political comment, then this is your jam.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is out September 10th in the UK, and is out now in the US.

* Malay folklore has some of the weirdest and scariest ghosts I’ve come across in storytelling. This list is a good starting point. The ones that appear or are mentioned in Sorcerer to the Crown are penanggalan and pontianaks. Zen has also featured many of them in her incredible short story collection Spirits Abroad.


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