Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review - Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Short review: Zacharias is the Sorcerer Royal, but his compatriots have no faith in his abilities, Britain's magic is waning, and he's perplexed by the headstrong Prunella.

A black sorcerer
Has to prove he is worthy
But then, Prunella!

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Sorcerer to the Crown imagines a Georgian-era Britain with the addition of magic, the fae, and a variety of other magical creatures. Cast from a similar mold to that which gave us His Majesty’s Dragon and Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this novel seems to lean heavily towards Jane Austen style story-telling, providing the book with a quality that can only be called charming. One might think that the book would be full of well-mannered young women attending parties in the hopes for snaring a desirable and eligible bachelor, or witty gentlemen trading quips at the dining club, and there is plenty of that, but Sorcerer to the Crown is much more than that: Lurking within its genteel surface is a hard-edged story of political intrigue with murderous stakes and the fate of nations in the balance. Woven through this story is also some fairly pointed commentary about the racism, sexism, and classism endemic to the Georgian-era, which serves to add a second layer of sharpness underneath the pretty façade presented by the novel.

Zacharias Wythe is a man with troubles, or rather, one might say he is a sorcerer with troubles. Despite holding the position of Sorcerer Royal, the head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, he is beset by opposition from all sides, including from within his own person. One would think that as the adopted son of the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias would be secure in his position. Unfortunately, Zacharias was born in Africa, and many of his fellow unnatural philosophers grate at the thought of being led by a black man. Further, the circumstances under which Zacharias assumed the position are regarded by many as being suspicious, with some even asserting that Zacharias murdered Sir Stephen to seize the staff of the Sorcerer Royal. Piled on to these personal troubles, Zacharias must deal with a worrying shortage of magic in Britain, as well as the fact that for the past several years no one has been able to acquire a familiar, which is regarded as the true mark of a sorcerer.

Despite the fact that the Sorcerer Royal is not an official part of His Majesty’s government, a representative of the foreign office almost immediately sets about dragging Zacharias into resolving an issue related to the rule of Sultan Ahmed of the island kingdom of Janda Baik, asking that England’s magic workers be turned to assist him in dealing with the elderly women of his kingdom, specifically the witches who oppose his rule. Though Zacharias rebuffs this request, this is the opening move in a long complicated multi-player chess match that will play out over the course of the book, as Cho weaves the story together using a half-dozen different threads. Soon Zacharias finds himself facing the formidable Mak Genggang, Sultan Ahmed’s primary opponent, who reveals that the dispute between the two is less clear cut than Ahmed had led the government to believe, and whose pursuit of her own agenda causes Zacharias no end of troubles. This part of the story serves as a strong indication that magic in the world changes the balance of power – despite the disregard that Britain seems to have for the power of Janda Baik, and the contempt that Britain’s thaumaturges display towards female magic, it is also obvious that they ignore and discount them at their peril.

Mak is not the only powerful woman that Zacharias encounters in the novel: While on a trip to speak at a school for witches – which, like all school of “magic” aimed at women is actually a school designed to train young ladies how to suppress their magical talents – he finds the vivacious Prunella Gentleman, who almost immediately contrives to accompany him on his journeys. His experience at the school, where he discovers that the girls are being taught to use a potentially life-threatening enchantment to drain away their magical gifts, convinces Zacharias that he must reform the education of women in the mystical arts in Britain, and he decides that Prunella's obvious gifts in the magical arts make her a perfect test case for him to begin with. What Zacharias doesn't count on is that Prunella has ideas of her own, and she is far too determined to allow the will of a mere Sorcerer Royal to arrange her future. This portion of the story both highlights the sexism of Georgian society, and the classism, as the prohibition on women using magic only applies to upper class women: Those working class women with magical talents are free to use their gifts to better serve their masters. Magic is allegedly too “strenuous” for the frail bodies of women, but only if those women are important enough for the upper crust care about. In at least some part, the greater amount of freedom that Prunella is afforded can be attributed to her somewhat unclear parentage, which rather obviously includes some non-European ancestors.

The odd thing about the sort of racism and sexism that the various characters display is that they do while actual non-human creatures exist alongside humanity. This is, after all, a world in which the land of faery is real. Talking dragons exist. Sorcerers seek familiars who take any number of forms raging from unicorns to sea-nymphs. Not only that, Britain relies upon the good graces of the rulers of the fae to ensure the flow of magic is uninterrupted. Foreign-born magic wielders can travel great distances in hours, or take shortcuts through the faery lands and cross the world as if it were crossing the street. As the reader works through the book, the parochialism of the British magical establishment appears more and more untenable, and more and more foolish. What is not in doubt is the murderous nature of British society, as Zacharias' enemies repeatedly make attempts on his life, through both clandestine and legal means. This is part of the brilliance of this book: While the events are presented in beautiful language, and often depict what appear to be charming scenes of genteel people politely sipping tea at delightful parties, this set dressing conceals sharp commentary and often vicious political infighting with brutally high stakes, providing a lovely story that is filled with magic, intrigue, politics, and romance.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. Britain has magic?? :-)
    That alone intrigues me.

    1. @fredamans: Yep. So does everyone else too, so the shortage is kind of a distressing thing for the various British characters.