34. ‘Sorcerer to the Crown’ by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in Zen Cho’s ‘Sorcerer Royal’ trilogy, and I read it for my book club last month. It’s a magical romp that’s quite good fun but, for me, nothing to write home about.

[Some spoilers ahead.]

sorcerer to the crown zen cho

England. An alternative 1800s where magic exists, but England is running out of it just when the country needs it for the war against the French. Zacharias Wythe is the newly appointed Sorcerer Royal. He inherited the position from his mentor, Sir Stephen, but there’s a problem: Zacharias is African, and the racist white magical elite are not happy that a ‘foreigner’ holds the highest title an English sorcerer can achieve. In an attempt to get away from the aggression boiling against him in London, Zacharias travels to a girls’ school in the country, where young women are taught to suppress their magical abilities because magic is traditionally a man’s game. There he meets Prunella, a mixed-race orphan who might just turn out to be more powerful than all of the stuffy old magicians back in London put together…

This sounds like the sort of thing I should like. Even though I don’t usually go in for straight-up fantasy magic, the fact that this book is confronting issues of race and gender, through not one but two non-white central characters, is hugely appealing to me. Indeed, that is the best thing about this book – seeing how Zacharias and Prunella navigate a society that is set against them, and the contortions they have to put themselves through to be ‘accepted’. There’s a great commentary on female magic running throughout the book: poor women actually use magic all the time, in the kitchen or to clean, but only because it’s convenient for the people they work for, who are willing to look the other way as long as their sheets end up spotless. Even so, the belief that women ‘can’t do magic’ holds strong, and the magic women use is not seen as ‘real magic’ precisely because women use it. Sound familiar?

So that is all good stuff. I should also mention my favourite character – Mak Genggang, a no-nonsense witch from Janda Baik – and my favourite scene – when Prunella hatches something from an egg and has to feed it on blood, and where might a young lady get blood from?

But I did also have some problems with this book. To begin with, it’s way too wordy. Cho is clearly going for a very formal, flowery, old-fashioned style in the characters’ speech, but oh boy is it annoying to read. It’s strongest at the beginning, so as the book goes on it becomes more bearable, but I did have to grit my teeth to get through the first few chapters because it was just too much. Here’s a taster, to give you an idea: “Like as not he will think it an absurd impertinence in me to presume to have identified a solution for our difficulties, when so many better magicians than I have failed.”

I also did not like the ending. I was with the story for most of the book – not loving it, but bobbing along quite happily – but the ending totally lost me. All the way through, Prunella has a fairly strong ‘chosen one’ vibe (which I don’t like), but Zacharias has to teach her how to use her magic and craft spells, and I liked the idea that she wasn’t just automatically all-powerful. However, in the final sequence Prunella does become all-powerful. Suddenly she’s supremely confident and doing things that experienced magicians could never dream of doing. It felt like, when it served the plot, Cho waved aside all the careful magic-system-building and just made Prunella into A Boss. Also, the final climactic scene is a big ol’ mess, with a fairly major revelation that’s glossed over so quickly I had to look back over what I’d read to check I hadn’t missed anything, and a final ‘resolution’ that leaves you thinking Oh, is that it? As for the very last scene – it’s extremely neat and tied up nicely with a bow, which is not my style at all.

Suffice to say, I won’t be reading the rest of this series. Sorcerer to the Crown is fine – it’s a perfectly pleasant read if you want something magical and fun and a little bit think-y, but it’s not one to make a massive impact.

“I must make as good a fist of being female as I can, and secure my position by the means permitted to my sex.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy Sorcerer to the Crown here.

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