“I’m surprised at you, Lorrie,” said Rollo. “It stands to reason no one can have a picnic if it is raining cockatrices and dragons. A hugeness mermaid don’t improve the view, either.”
It is always refreshing to read a fantasy/magical story that isn’t all about people fair of skin and golden-locked. And it is always wonderful to read of a strong feisty main female character who doesn’t bow down to tradition, even if it is a Regency setting, where women are not supposed to practise magic.
Sorcerer to the Crown is all about breaking with tradition.
In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.
Sure, there are elements of popular fantasy reads here. A school for magic (or rather anti-magic) for girls. Squabbling magicians (males of course). The land of faery. A Regency England setting. Very proper and what not.
Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies – too potent a brew for their weak minds – and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.
But at its heart is the Sorcerer Royal Zacharias, a black man in a sea of white. He was a freed slave who was adopted by the Sir Stephen Wythe, then the Sorcerer Royal. He inherited the title from Sir Stephen. Well sort of. The thing with the title is that it comes with a staff and like Thor’s hammer, it is only wielded by the rightful owner. But mutter mutter there rumour rumour here, everyone is convinced that Zacharias had something to do with Sir Stephen’s death. After all, where is Leofric, Sir Wythe’s familiar? Doesn’t the Sorcerer Royal need a familiar? And also, they blame him for the mere trickling of magic that England now has.
So besides all this politicking (and assassination attempts and constant worrying about lack of magical resources) that Zacharias has to fend off, he has to make a speech at Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a school in which girls learn to suppress their natural magical abilities. Because women aren’t supposed to be magical. Of course they aren’t! There he meets Prunella, a sort of ward/teacher/servant of the school, a very magical young woman, who seeks his help in leaving the school and, well, she’s not the kind of person who takes no for an answer. And also, she’s a mixed race, half-Indian orphan.
Then there’s Mak Genggang, a witch from Janda Baik, and she’s stirring up trouble for everyone, especially Zacharias, who pretty much has his hands full by now.
Mak Genggang was a puzzle. In manner and appearance she struck Prunella as being little different from an English village witch, of the sort who plied villagers with love philtres and finding charms, far away from the disapproving eye of the Society. Yet she had walked through Fairyland to England; the Sorcerer Royal treated her as an equal; and she was possessed of such a serene and persuasive conviction of her own power that neither fact seemed remarkable.
So Zacharias’ life is changed forever, and so is Prunella’s. And they set out to put England right too. Things aren’t ever as simple as that, especially since this is only the first book in the series, but just take it from me, this is a delightful delightful book. It is a book that made me laugh and smile and just be so glad for someone like Zen Cho to have written this magical book of magic. A book full of life and colour and vivacity. A book that simple soars.
(I do have the tiniest twinge of disappointment that this book was not set in Malaysia, or even somewhere in Asia – Cho was born and raised in Malaysia but currently lives in England. But I have hope that she will write one novel set in Asia sometime soon.)
Zen Cho’s Bibliography (her website)
Spirits Abroad (short stories)
Cyberpunk: Malaysia (editor)