Desert Isle Keeper
Sorcerer to the Crown
I’ve tried so many of the ‘British history, but with magic’ books over the years: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, etc. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is the best one I’ve read – and the competition is not even close.
Britain’s Sorcerer Royal Sir Stephen Wythe discovered Zacharias as a child – a toddler, in fact, enslaved on the ship on which Sir Stephen was traveling. Fast forward two decades, and Sir Stephen is dead and Zacharias has inherited the title of Sorcerer Royal along with the magical staff which approves of each holder of the office. But all is not well. There is great discontent among white British magic wielders (thaumaturges, in this book) that they are presided over by a foreign-born black man. For unknown reasons, the supply of magic in Britain is dwindling. Nobody has obtained a familiar from Fairyland in decades. The Sultan of a strategically located Malayan island has arrived to ask for British magical support to subdue domestic rivals, but the Sorcerer Royal has a strict mandate to serve the nation, not the government and its politics. And the most promising magician Zacharias has encountered is a woman – even though everybody knows that women are constitutionally incapable of wielding magic.
Miss Prunella Gentleman’s father was English but her mother – a woman Prunella never knew – was from India. Prunella has received unprecedented riches in a mysterious inheritance from this unknown mother – seven familiars’ eggs – when any thaumaturge in the realm would give a king’s ransom to have just one. Unfortunately, she can’t figure out how they hatch, so when she’s reduced to taking a servant post at the girls’ school where she works, she has to go to plan B: travel to London and squeeze finding a wealthy husband into a schedule of learning magic.
Whereas historical magic books typically focus on the internal druid/Arthurian life of the British Isles, expanding to include France and Napoleon if utterly necessary, Sorcerer to the Crown boldly centers British imperialism and racism. The Sultan of Janda Baik has come to London to try use British might for his own domestic political ends, subduing the female mages of his island (of course, the female mage who has followed him to London has her own opinions on this). It’s a classic colonialist ploy, ‘intervening on behalf of’ someone and then sticking around, especially if that someone controls strategic territory. A lady of the ton says of Prunella, in what is meant to be praise “I do not think she is so very brown – you would hardly know she was not English by candlelight” (the presumption that a biracial person is “not English” is, how shall we say, still an active issue). We even have to ask questions about the benevolent Sir Stephen, who loved Zacharias as a son – after purchasing Zacharias, but not Zacharias’s parents.
Zacharias and Prunella are an entertainingly complementary odd couple. Zacharias, an introvert, is an ethicist, “the most nice-conscienced duty-bound fellow” in the thaumaturgical world (although Zacharias notes that he “had to stand beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation”). I loved his immediate engagement with women’s magical education and his intent to make it the signature policy of his tenure. Prunella, by contrast, is an outgoing ends-justify-the-means pragmatist. When she sets out to charm, manipulate, and outright deceive the ton in pursuit of a husband, Zacharias notes, “Your amoral ingenuity in pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking.” Prunella, “pleased,” replies, “Yes, isn’t it?” The book is peppered with this sort of delightful exchange, with prose that evokes Heyer or Austen. I laughed out loud often, which is rare in a genre that seems to feel that a book must take itself seriously to be Quality.
My biggest complaint about this book was that personally, I didn’t bond with Prunella. I know she’s only nineteen, and her trust issues are well-founded, but I wanted her to be less reckless and convinced she knows best. There are, we learn, legitimate reasons for her to be a significantly powerful magician, but at times she was drifting dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. Still, I’ve read numerous reviews by people who felt Prunella was the best thing about the book, so your mileage may vary.
I first encountered Zen Cho while tagging her DIK novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo in our database. Our reviewer called that work “an amuse-bouche of a story.” Well, if Jade Yeo is the amuse-bouche, Sorcerer is the whole damn meal, and one which will leave you utterly satisfied.