Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Ace Books
Release Date:  September 1, 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-28337-0

Magic and mayhem in proper English society during what feels to be the Regency era?  A Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, a Sorcerer Royal who is (gasp!) a black man, and a small but growing movement to allow women to practice magic?

Yes, please!

Debut author Zen Cho has penned a delightful “what if?” book that follows Zacharias Wythe, the current Sorcerer Royal, as he seeks to find out why the flow of magic from the fairylands into Britain has been staunched.  The former son of slaves, adopted as a baby by the then-Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias is a dedicated, thoughtful, and somewhat reserved holder of the ancient staff of office.

There are those, though, who resent his attaining such an esteemed position, as he is a man of exceedingly dark complexion, and  who was not born a gentleman.  While officially Sir Stephen passed the royal staff to Zacharias upon his death, as tradition dictates, rumors continue to circulate within the Royal Society that Zacharias had actually murdered the old gentleman in order to grasp the power of office for himself; rumors that were bolstered due to the disappearance that night of Leofric, the familiar who had served the Sorcerer Royal for hundreds of years.  A Royal Sorcerer without a magical familiar was unthinkable, and yet, that is currently the situation in England.

Zacharias merely laughs to himself (never publicly!) when he hears of such rumors.  He knows that the staff had been rightfully passed to him by Sir Stephen on his deathbed, even though he had not sought after nor even wanted the position of Sorcerer Royal.  He knows the full story of Leofric’s disappearance, but has forsworn speaking about it to anyone else.  He also knows – as everyone knows – that the staff of the Royal Sorcerer chooses its own master, and no spell or conjuring would have placed that staff in Zacharias’ hands unless it was meant to be there.

But men are vain and argumentative, and easily swayed by promises of political and personal gain; thaumaturges, magicians and sorcerers no less so.  Even though the position of Royal Sorcerer is sworn to protect the good of the Nation – not any particular government or party, not the Society or even magic itself – and therefore is somewhat toothless when it comes to wielding political power, there are still factions within the Society that covet its prestige and clout.

So Zacharias must not only administrate the role of magic in English society, promote scientific and thaumatological endeavors, discharge ceremonial duties and grapple with the very real challenges to English magic (such as the aforementioned lack of magic being allowed in from the fairylands), but also fend off internal challenges to his office, and even his very person.

But Sorcerer to the Crown is also the story of Prunella Gentlewoman, the nineteen year old orphan who for years has assisted Mrs. Daubeney, who is the headmistress of a school for gentlewitches a few days’ journey outside of London.  Prunella’s skilled yet itinerant wizard father died when Prunella was young, leaving her in Mrs. Daubeney’s care; of her mother she knows nothing other than believing that she must have been Indian, seeing that her father had spent years in India prior to his penniless return to England, and that Prunella herself has honey colored skin and dark, exotic eyes.

Prunella also possesses a casually accessible magic, far greater than even she realizes.  When she finds an old valise of her father’s containing some very mysterious stones, she is intrigued.  When shortly thereafter she has an irreconcilable fallout with Mrs. Daubeney, she takes it on herself to use the visit of the Royal Sorcerer to make a break from the school, and launch herself – and her untutored, prohibited magical skills – directly into the bubbling hub of humanity that is London.  Can Zacharias, who has already considered a push to broaden the feminine role in officially sanctioned magic, both nurture and protect this headstrong and naive young witch from society and from herself, while still juggling all of his other duties and challenges?

Written in a intriguing, beautifully consistent and evocative style, Sorcerer to the Crown successfully marries a strong sense of a bygone era alongside the capricious yet regimented whims of magic to a story line that is both familiar and full of surprises.  Ms. Cho does a wonderful job of illuminating plot points without belaboring them, of making us comfortable enough in this alternate world to realize when things are horribly amiss.  Her characters are almost but not quite archetypes, with well realized personalities -something that isn’t easy given that the society of her given time period lends itself to trope and stereotype; each of her characters are distinct beyond where they fit in to society, and as to how far they can push those societal boundaries without the narrative feeling forced or derivative.  The plot, likewise, is diverse without being frenetic.  The main characters struggle both internally, personally, and with the larger forces of their world; some, more successfully than others.  This injects a sense of the genuine in a completely fantastical text – not an easy feat, and especially admirable from a debut author!

There was only one aspect of Sorcerer to the Crown with which I must quibble, and that is with the scope of magic that Prunella congenitally possesses.  I have a knee-jerk reaction to what I call “convenient magic”, where abilities, spells and/or talismans suddenly materialize in the nick of time in order to bridge gaping plot holes, rather than appearing as a logical outgrowth of the character doing the conjuring.  Prunella’s abilities flirt with this convenient magic pitfall; not so much the immensity of her talents, but in the reaction to those talents.  For instance, early on she effortlessly reanimates a pile of old linens to take on the appearance of an elderly chaperone, complete with motion, and the ability to suggest speech and interaction with others, even those savvy to magic.  That’s pretty awesome for a rural gentlewitch with little training!  Yet, the only acknowledgement of this incredible skill is that Zacharias thinks to himself that it is “most impressive”.  That’s it.  No jaw drops, no “By jove, woman!” exclamations. Yes, the story arc plays into this, but it felt like a uncooked dough in what otherwise was a pretty flawless narrative.

Still, if one is going to enter into a willing suspension of disbelief, as one must with a storyline wherein magic is not only commonplace, but part and parcel of a strictly mannered and highly regimented society, then this is undoubtedly a lesser complaint.  And it certainly should not keep someone interested from reading this fun debut novel.  A fun time is sure to be had by all.

I wonder what Ms. Cho is going to do next!

~ Sharon Browning

Related Posts