The BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my absolute favourite TV series, and I love the book almost as much. It was one of the rare instances where I actually preferred the series to the original novel, and it heralded my diving into the growing world of fantasy novels set during the Napoleonic wars. The best of these I have already written about; the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik, which are both rigourously researched and delightful in their characterisations of dragons and humans. I stumbled across Sorcerer to Crown in Waterstones, and immediately added it to my ever-growing “to-read” pile.
Sorcerer to the Crown is very similar in its core plot to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; magic is declining in England, and no one knows why. While in Strange andNorrell this has been a gradual decline over centuries, in Sorcerer to the Crown it has happened over a few years at most. In Cho’s novel, the blame is being squarely places on the shoulders of the new Sorcerer to the Crown, Zacharias Wythe. Zacharias is looked upon with suspicion by his thaumaturgical peers due to the mysterious nature of his mentor and predecesor’s death, his nature as something of a social outcast, but most of all because Zacharias Wythe is a person of colour in a very white culture. It is here where Strange and Norrell differs greatly from Sorcerer to the Crown, as one of the central themes of Cho’s novel is racism and prejudice or all kinds.
Zacharias Wythe was originally an African slave, emancipatedand taught by his mentor, the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, and required to prove his race’s capacity for magic at a young age. As a child he was used as a tool to overturn magical society’s supserstitions about who can and cannot practice magic, so it is hardly a surprise when he demonstrates something of a revolutionary streak as the book progresses.
After a trip to the Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, where magical young women are taught to suppress their gifts, often with methods harmful to themselves. The visit to the school and a chance meeting with Prunella Gentleman, a young woman in the care of Mrs Daubeney, requires Zacharias to acknowledge what he had known all his life: that women were just as capable of magic as men. He sets out to do for Prunella what was done for him, and make her an example of female magical abilities. Prunella however, has other plans for her future.
As another person of colour, Prunella’s experience of racism, and in her case sexism, is very different to Zacharias. Where he chooses to distance himself from those who find him distasteful, Prunella instead uses her differences to take advantage of their prejudices for her own ends. Prunella is ruthless and decisive in her pursuit of what she wants, and is pretty magnificent character if you ask me.
I found Sorcerer to the Crown slow going at first, but I recommend to readers to persevere with the first two chapters as it picks up a great deal afterwards. There’s no other way to put it: the beginning of the book is boring. There’s an Edwardian style to much of the book, such as Prunella’s dabblings in high society and the world of the ‘debutante’, but the start of the book reads like a rather dull Austen novel. I’m very glad to have continued reading, as soon after the plot thickens and we end up with an odd blend of high society comedy, magical dalliances and fantastical adventure.
Despite the slow start, Sorcerer to the Crown is an easy read and one that made me laugh out loud several times, and grin with a malevolent joy at times. The ending has a shocking twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming, but the soft spoken humour threaded throughout this book is what really made it for me. So much of it was exceedingly British, featuring battles on a grand scale in which the combatants bizarrely take a moment to consider genealogy; similarly the unfailing politeness of Zacharias is often used for comedic effect, especially when contrasted with Prunella’s bluntness.
This is only the first in a trilogy by Zen Cho, which have some misgivings about as Sorcerer to the Crown would have worked brilliantly as a stand alone novel. Nevertheless, I will be reading the series as I thoroughly enjoyed my experience.
If you‘re a fan of fantasy and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest‘ style humour, Sorcerer to the Crown could be right up your street.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this post, and if so keep an eye out as this is part of my Blogtober series where I post every day in October. Check out my other posts from this month and see whether I actually manage to even think of 31 topics!