Rating: 4.5 stars
Bought and liberated as a child, and later adopted by the esteemed Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Whyte, Zacharias Whyt now has the honour of being the first dark-skinned Sorcerer Royal of England. In a time when English magic is waning due to some mysterious restrictions from the Faerie courts and the country is still facing threats from Napoleon on the Continent, Zacharias is also facing personal challenges, with a seeming majority of the members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (gentleman magicians) accusing him of having murdered and usurped Sir Stephen and having destroyed his faerie familiar. They are plotting to having Zacharias removed and replaced, in a process that won't really end well for the poor man.
In this stressful time, Zacharias is persuaded by a friend to go give a talk at a girls' school in the countryside, where he discovers that contrary to the popular belief among the Society, that women are only capable of minor hexes and cantrips to help them in the home, many of the young gentlewomen at the school are vastly skilled and are being taught modified curses to drain the magic out of themselves, because it's deemed unseemly for women to possess or use magic at all. He also meets the formidable Miss Prunella Gentleman, and orphan of uncertain parentage (but it's clear that her mother was of Indian persuasion), who appears to have more magic at her ready disposal and control than all of England's male magicians put together. She is also in possession of a magical treasure of untold value and Zacharias feels he has no other choice but to take her with him to London, to tutor her so she doesn't run around uncontrolled.
Of course, once Prunella, used as she is to fixing, sorting and managing everything, discovers the extent to the troubles Zacharias is facing, she's determined to help him sort them out. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers won't know what hit them.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the debut novel of Zen Cho, a Malaysian fantasy writer. It's the first in a planned trilogy, but never fear, it has a perfectly satisfactory ending, with no pesky cliffhangers to mar your enjoyment until the next book in the series comes out. Clearly inspired by the writing style of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, the language of the book is quite formal and the plot progression is slow. There is a romantic subplot that I found delightful, but there are no passionate declarations or steamy love scenes here, so look elsewhere if that's what you're after. There is the sly wit and humour of both the best of Austen and Heyer, while both being a lot more feminist and diverse than either of those great ladies' books.
In a book where the protagonists are a freed slave and an orphaned, mixed-race, probably illegitimate woman and the main plot involves just how badly the male magic users of England have underestimated the women, not only of their own country, but that of other nations, it makes for a delightful change from a lot of still very male-dominated fantasy. Zen Cho also manages to make her points without it feeling like she's beating you over the head with her "agenda", and while the plot was slow, I very much enjoyed reading the book.
Poor Zacharias clearly never wanted the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him, but grateful to his adoptive parents, he's going to carry out his duties, even knowing that many of his fellow wizards suspect him of murder and manipulation and are plotting to have him killed and replaced as Sorcerer Royal as a result. He would like nothing better than to retire to the countryside as a lowly scholar, but instead he has to negotiate with the Faerie court, try to fend off the demands of the English government who want magical aid in foreign conflicts and then has his entire world view turned upside down when it becomes clear that women can be just as capable of using magic as men, possibly even better at it.
Prunella Gentleman has never known her mother, but knows she was dark-skinned and therefore not exactly desirable in polite society. After her father killed himself, she was raised in the girls' school, on charity, but despite dreaming of balls and suitors and the other things her fellow gentlewomen dream of, it becomes very clear to her that she's seen more as a servant, despite all the help she's given the proprietress over the years. Not one to dwell on disappointment and betrayed feelings for long, pragmatic and ambitious Prunella takes her newly-discovered magical legacy and intends to follow Zacharias to London. Once she saves his life from a magical assassination attempt, he feels indebted to her, and offers her tutelage. She, in return, feels protective of him and determines to help him sort out his troubles, as he's clearly not capable of taking care of himself.
Not surprisingly, the upper classes of English gentlemen are completely unprepared for a female of uncertain origins in their midst, disproving once and for all that women shouldn't use magic. While the plot moves slowly, the final third gets quite action-packed, with Prunella discovering the individual behind the magical attacks against Zacharias and helping sort of the diplomatic tangle that England has got itself tied up in. While the book ends on a satisfying conclusion, there is more than enough hints as to what is to come in the series, and I for one, am very eager to see what Ms. Cho has planned for us next.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.