Sorcerer To The Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Zen Cho’s Regency-era fantasy novel Sorcerer To The Crown, the first of a trilogy, offers pleasures on several levels to a reader such as myself.
On the one hand, it is always exciting when new, diverse voices are added to the speculative fiction genre, and Cho’s contribution – a wildly imaginative, humorous and yet very relevant tale of sorcerers, fairies and magical societies – is without doubt one worth reading.
The Malaysian part of me, meanwhile, was more than a little thrilled to recognise that no one but a writer raised in urban Malaysia on a steady diet of both local folklore and the likes of Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Diana Wynne Jones could have written this book; and while Sorcerer To The Crown is all the richer for these influences, the story Cho spins is entirely and distinctively her own.
Set in an alternate England where monarchy and political system functions alongside the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers – who oversee all thaumaturgical matters in the country – Sorcerer To The Crown begins with the appointment of Zacharias Wythe as the nation’s first Sorcerer Royal of African descent.
The Society isn’t happy; much is being made of the fact that Zacharias’ adoptive father and former Sorcerer Royal Sir Stephen Wythe died in mysterious circumstances.
The underlying problem, however, is one of discrimination: to many in the Society, Zacharias simply isn’t the right colour to hold the post, and some will do anything necessary to get rid of him.
The steadfast Zacharias, however, is more occupied with upholding his duties, specifically getting to the bottom of why England’s magic levels seem to be dropping.
And then there is also the matter of Prunella Gentleman, an orphaned young lady who is determined to move up in the world.
She also happens to be one of the most gifted thaumaturges Zacharias has come across, except for the fact that women aren’t actually supposed to practise magic at all.
What Zacharias doesn’t know, though, is that Prunella has made one of the most important discoveries in English magic in centuries.
Cho’s world-building is absolutely on point, nailing both the fantastical elements as well as the language and social mores of the era.
There is, however, a lot of story here, and while the first half of the book takes its time to unfold, the rest sometimes feels like it hurtles too quickly to the end.
To her credit though, Cho never loses her grip on the many threads, and weaves them into an immensely satisfying whole.
Meanwhile, Zacharias and Prunella are the kinds of characters a reader could happily follow over several volumes – Prunella, in particular, imperfect as she is, simply lights up the pages, while Zacharias’ “strong and silent” persona is appropriately swoon-worthy.
They’re so likeable, in fact, that one might almost miss how cleverly Cho subverts classic Regency stereotypes through them.
The thing that sets Sorcerer To The Crown apart from others in the genre is the author’s canny awareness of the larger effects of British colonialism.
Tendrils of her tale reach out to Malaya, India and, briefly, even China, and she doesn’t shy away from examining the darker realities of England’s expansion of power.
In a genre that is quite often inclined to self-serious grimness, I’ve enjoyed Cho’s gentle, often wry, approach to speculative fiction, such as in her short story collection, Spirits Abroad (2014).
The whimsy, however, often conceals a surprising amount of depth, and Sorcerer To The Crown is no exception, deftly addressing weighty issues such as racism and gender equality.
That she manages to do all this while still taking readers on a journey filled with sheer, delightful wonder, is why I cannot wait to read what comes next.
Full disclosure: Sharmilla Ganesan’s short story appears in Cyberpunk: Malaysia, an anthology edited by Zen Cho.