I bought Sorcerer to the Crown thanks to a really excellent three-part post by the delightful Dina of SFF Book Reviews (you can find part one here, part two here and part three here) that I read a couple of years ago when I was first starting out in this bloggy business.
Unfortunately, then, in my usual lackadaisical fashion, I forgot to read it. You know how it is.
Boy, do I feel stupid now.
Because Zen Cho. Oh. My. Goodness. I want to read everything she has ever written and then I want to read it all over again. I want to go back in time to the me that had just bought Sorcerer to the Crown and I want to hit that me around the face with it to punctuate my screaming “What. Are. You. Waiting. For?” I know my little strap-line thingummy up there *points left* says “always late to the SFF party”, but sometimes I astound even myself.
The problem with trying to write up my thoughts and feelings about something I’ve really enjoyed is that I can’t always bring my brain to heel long enough to string a sentence together. As I’m having this problem right now, I’m just going to get this all off my chest before I start trying to make sense: All the hearts for Damerell, and putting a cork in it; for personal rainclouds and lamia cousins and oriental unicorns (omg!!!); and did someone mention a pea-green hat? And then the sibyl in the painting, and cloud-riding, and Rollo and Poggs, and finally meeting Aunt Georgiana, and talking caterpillars, and yay for that ending, and more more more!!!
Right. That’s better. Let’s begin.
This is one of those books, that while being rip-roaring fun to read, also has some serious and thought-provoking undertones. A tale of squabbling sorcerers and wondrous witches, magical creatures and the land of fairy, it is also a story about racism, sexism and oppression. That Cho is able to tell all of these stories within one novel without faltering in her pitch perfect period style is one of the reasons why I am so absolutely in love with this book. I’ve yet to read another historical fantasy set mostly in Regency England that tells the story of an African sorcerer, a powerful and determined biracial woman and a village of vampire women in Malaysia in which these characters are front and centre and their agency vital to the story, rather than added as peripheral oddities.
Zacharias Wythe has recently taken up the staff of the Sorcerer Royal and become responsible for all magic in England – which is mysteriously in decline – after the death of his guardian Sir Stephen Wythe. He is the first black man to hold this prominent position and many think him unworthy of it and plot to remove him. Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman is an orphan of uncertain heritage living/working in a school for the suppression of female magic. When she discovers something among her father’s meagre personal effects it seems that her fortunes may change, if she can persuade someone to help her. Zacharias and Prunella quickly find themselves in each other’s company and chaos, adventure and hilarity ensue.
There is so much more going on than just those bare bones, however. Zacharias has a whole stack of impossible problems to try and solve, not only the decline in English magic and the chilly relations between England and Fairy, but also keeping the government ignorant of this issue, not getting manipulated into promising magical solutions to political problems abroad, managing his own strange and debilitating malady and foiling sorcerous assassination attempts. Not to mention tutoring Prunella in thaumaturgy in the hope of bringing about a reform in the education of women at the same time as helping her in her quest to find a suitable husband.
It’s no wonder that Zacharias is a quiet, serious individual who is practically eclipsed every time Prunella enters the scene. She is a whirlwind of utter self-belief and resolve, practical, resourceful, ambitious, endlessly inventive and magically gifted. Having very few advantages and understanding perfectly how pitiless society can be, she is determined to manoeuvre herself into as safe a position as she can manage. I was in love with her from the get-go for being so very herself and not giving a fig about what society expects of her.
Which is not to say that Zacharias is any less lovable. He is, however, someone you need to spend more time with to love. Used as he is to having to hide his true feelings about the thousand tiny slights he receives for being an African gentleman (a dichotomy if ever there was one: an African at this time seen as less, beneath notice, unworthy of recognition; a gentleman seen as a person of good social standing and thus deserving of recognition), in a position of considerable power, he is far more reserved than Prunella. I loved that neither Zacharias and Prunella’s discussion about being outsiders, nor Zacharias and Sir Stephen’s discussion about obligation and love, tried to simplify or ignore the very complex feelings involved. Zacharias’ whole life is a tumult of anger, guilt and gratitude and there were a couple of moments when Sir Stephen mentioned some memory he had of Zacharias and Zacharias remembered the same instance, but through such a completely different lens of experience, that I choked up.
This. This is why I read. To see and feel and know more than I could without books.
And then there were moments when I laughed out loud (my bus journeys are an embarrassment, I tell you). Cho’s fairies and magical creatures are as contrary, fickle and pleasure-seeking as you could want; Prunella is, I think I may have mentioned already, a delight; Mak Genggang ever more so because while Prunella knows the conventions she’s flouting, Mak Genggang doesn’t even acknowledge them in the first place (if she doesn’t appear in the sequel The True Queen I will be heart-broken) and I love the wake of indignant men she leaves behind her. Damerell, on the other hand, seems to have stepped right out of the pages of a Georgette Heyer novel, and I ate up every scene he was in; there was, too, such an interesting dynamic between him and Rollo that I hope we get to see them again, (was I being dumb that I didn’t see the Rollo and Poggs thing coming? It was the loveliest surprise, but as I haven’t started rereading the book yet, I don’t know how obvious the foreshadowing was. I loved it, anyway).
There were also moments where I was furious with certain characters and had to put the book down for a minute or two; where I was enchanted by magic and had to read a passage over again, and where I was horrified by actions contemplated and actions taken (Prunella, I am looking quite particularly at you here). That there was very real human menace alongside magical delights and dangers, and problematic emotions in the same space as amusement and romance has left me full of admiration for Cho’s skill in keeping it all together and spinning such a gorgeous tale. Go and read it now if you haven’t already.
Seriously, what are you still doing here?