Zen Cho’s debut novel “Sorcerer to the Crown” is a debut fantasy tale set in Regency England with a multicultural cast.
‘Sorcerer to the Crown’
by Zen Cho
Ace, 371 pp., $26.95
Midway through London writer Zen Cho’s light-spirited debut novel “Sorcerer to the Crown,” the wheels of the hero’s stylish carriage turn into pumpkins. The book’s prologue tells how a little boy brings carvings of birds to life to sing and fly through a stately British hall, and at its conclusion a sorcerer retires to a cottage garden to converse with enchanted caterpillars.
But though the ghosts and spells found within its pages mark it as imaginative fiction of some sort, “Sorcerer to the Crown” eludes finer classification. It’s set in a fantastic Regency period rather than the pseudo-Victorian-and-Edwardian eras more usual to gaslamp fantasy, and it lacks the elegant duelists associated with mannerpunk. Susanna Clarke, author of the multiple award-winning “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” is the writer whose work Cho’s most closely approximates. Both hearken back to Jane Austen’s sharp-eyed observations of early 19th-century mores, and both introduce into this familiar milieu bickering societies of professional magicians jealous of their reputations.
Where Clarke restricts herself to one nonwhite major character, however, Cho revels in a host of them. And where Clarke eschews Austenian romance in favor of friendship as her novel’s emotional engine, Cho’s plot deliberately echoes many of the romance genre’s conventions: the plucky heroine determined to be advantageously wed, the crucial confrontation taking place at a formal ball, the proposal unfolding in the final scene. Playing with race and gender dynamics, raising reader expectations so she can simultaneously twist and satisfy them, Cho unleashes all diversity’s intrinsically impish fun.
Zacharias Wythe, once the ward of the deceased Sir Stephen, succeeds his noble mentor as head of The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. But though Zacharias’ succession meets every magical requirement laid out for the position, it is hotly contested by the society’s white members based on his blackness. Meanwhile, Fairyland’s embargo on the exportation of familiars, an army of French sorcerers issuing war challenges, and competing pleas for either the sanctioning of a Southeast Asian archipelago’s female practitioners or their banishment as witches, all contribute to the chaos that threatens to overwhelm this talented but socially inept young man. Then Prunella Gentleman, a governess of uncertain but indubitably mixed-race parentage, adds her iconoclastic agenda and headstrong strategizing to the stormlike atmosphere swirling around him.
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At the story’s start, Prunella’s career consists of teaching women born into society’s upper ranks how not to perform magic. According to convention sorcerous ability is, much like active sexuality, the sole purview of men. The only exceptions are accorded to small children and female servants, so repressing the unwelcome supernatural talents of wealthy debutantes is a cozy niche. But Prunella abandons it for her dream of cashing in on her own heritage, the physical emblems of which she discovers in a mysterious valise in her school’s attic. Unfazed by prohibitions against unladylike spellcasting, she envisions herself leveraging its contents to secure marriage to an influential man.
Their goals are different, but Zacharias and Prunella eventually find allies in one another. The related and recurring controversies they face concerning magical power’s supposed incompatibility with the perceived weaknesses of women and people of color throw them together again and again, and resolving those controversies leads these engaging characters along surprising paths to an ending almost fairy-tale-like in its happiness.