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Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal trilogy) Hardcover – 10 Sep 2015
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An enchanting cross between Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, full of delights and surprises (Naomi Novik)
A warm, funny debut novel by a brilliant new talent (Charles Stross)
Compulsively readable and wickedly funny, this magical marriage of Jane Austen and P. G. Wodehouse delivers love, laughs, and a thoroughly modern sensibility, and will keep you reading long into the night. I loved it (Lavie Tidhar)
Fabulous! If you like Austen or Patrick O'Brian, or magic and humor like Susannah Clarke, or simply a very fun read, you will really, really, enjoy this (Ann Leckie)
A delightful and enchanting novel that uses sly wit and assured style to subvert expectations while it always, unfailingly, entertains. I loved it (Kate Elliott)
I would marry this book if I could(Justine Larbalestier)
Zen Cho is spectacular, a confident and exciting new voice (Paul Cornell)
Magic, manners and dragons in Regency England . . . a mix of Jane Austen, P. G. Wodehouse and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and all its own thing. Glorious (Aliette de Bodard)
A comedy of manners ... a classic, gently barbed upper-crust comedy mixed with magical thrills, modern social consciousness, and a hint of political intrigue. A decidedly promising start (Kirkus Reviews)
A treat for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell and Georgette Heyer - a Regency romp with a pinch of fairyland.See all Product description
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Prunella Gentleman is a young woman living in a school of magically gifted girls from high society. There, they are being taught means to keep their magic in check and repress their unnatural natures. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong - what if women are not too frail to be competent at sorcery?
Inevitably, the first comparison that springs to mind once you start reading is Susanna Clarke's classic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Readers could be forgiven for thinking Sorcerer to the Crown is a sort of Strange & Norrell LIGHT. The setting is all-too similar: during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, English magic has been floundering and is in need of revival. Magic is governed by a society of stuffy noble men, as a sort of alternative to politics and priesthood for surplus younger sons. In comes a burst of magical talent from an unexpected direction, and the society of magicians gets flustered and alienated by the changes foisted upon it. Meanwhile, politicians want magic to solve foreign policy problems and assist in war and empire building efforts, while sorcerers need magic to remain aloof and respected, distanced from the grime of politics.
There are some key differences between Sorcerer and Strange & Norrell. Sorcerer to the Crown is a lot more light hearted in its narrative, and most of its characters are actually pleasant individuals. The writing voice isn't quite as infused with dry wit, but the story moves along at a brisker pace and with a lighter touch.
The other key difference is the very conscious decision to make this not yet another book about white men. Sorcerer to the Crown puts a black sorcerer (Zacharias Whyte) and a half-Indian magicienne (Prunella Gentleman) in the protagonists' chairs, and of the side characters, it's a South Asian witch who steals the show. Zacharias and Prunella are both outstandingly gifted, both adopted and mentored by well-meaning but quite patronising white noble people, and both used to repressing themselves in order to please their adoptive parental figures. Until things change, through death or betrayal of trust.
Of the two, it is Prunella who is more strong willed, single minded and proud. Zacharias is a scholar, with a tendency to isolate himself and keep aloof. Prunella is a social butterfly, outgoing and a force of nature once she unshackles herself from her upbringing.
While it's light-hearted and fun, I did not love the novel entirely. Zacharias does not take the danger to his person seriously, so neither could I, which softens the drama. When the grand finale happens, the big confrontation is handled with a lightness that reminds me more of mid-season Doctor Who battles: it's a very tongue in cheek finale, and very very safe. It feels more like a story for children than young adults or adults at that point.
This lightness does not really work for me, in the context of a novel about disadvantaged people flourishing and succeeding against all odds. The novel does not have to get all po-faced and worthy, but when there are conspiracies to murder and do blood sacrifice, the intended victim should probably not shrug those things off. When there is a real risk of people being burnt alive, the people in question should probably not laugh at their persecutors.
Sorcerer to the Crown is a novel about girl power, a cheeky attitude and inherited superpowers overcoming persecution, oppression and conspiracies. It makes the book fun and light, but it sells short the challenges involved, and it feels lazy. It's very much like Doctor Who in that regard - The Doctor often beats his opponents with attitude and gobbledigook and a huge (sense of) superiority. This is why I dislike many episodes of Doctor Who. I like it no better when the character beating their opponents with attitude and surprises and a huge (sense of) superiority are ethnic minority sorcerers in Regency Britain. They never act like people who perceive themselves to be in genuine peril, and so their successes end up looking too easy, not earned.
Despite those criticisms, I enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown. I will want to read the sequels when they come out: it's a promising start to a series, even if it errs a little on the sight of lightness.
This is a truly delightful book, probably one of the most delightful I have ever read. It both mocks but also respects its milieu in a fashion that is so inspired that it’s often laugh-out-loud funny.
However, for all the lightness and warmth, it also manages to look at racial politics in a way that is still depressingly relevant.
The titular sorcerer is a black man called Zacharias who has been adopted, raised and trained by the previous incumbent of the Sorcerer Royal position, Sir Stephen. For all his generosity, Sir Stephen is still a product of his society, and the author gently exposes a number of uncomfortable truths about their relationship and its relative positions of power. That these truths can exist along with the unquestioned love between the main character and mentor makes the novel a hopeful one, even though the forces ranged against the protagonists are mean, small-minded and vicious enough to abuse their considerable power to stamp out any progressiveness in the world of English magic.
For it is not enough that Zacharias is black, no; under the influence of the brilliant, wayward and gorgeous Prunella Gentleman (the names in this book ring around your head even when you’re not reading it), the Sorcerer Royal has begun to entertain notions of educating women in the ways of magic. Outrageous!
Prunella is a creation of brilliance. Headstrong and relentlessly creative, the half-Indian orphan girl is discovered by Zacharias assisting at a school whose prime directive is suppressing magic in young women, regardless of the damage to their physical and mental health. Realising that she will have to take charge of her own fate if she is to have any sort of reasonable life, she tricks, seduces (chastely) and outwits everyone who gets in her way, starting with the preoccupied and often stuffy Zacharias. Discovering seven crystals that house ‘familiars’ or supernatural beings who can bestow great power on their benefactor, Prunella uses menstrual blood to bring three of them to life. This sequence is executed so tastefully and with such polite understanding that it almost feels that Zen Cho is creating her own genre here. Such is the conservatism that dominates the society of the novel, every time Prunella shatters some taboo or breaks some rule that I actually fear for her on more that one level.
The only character who dominates the text even more is the witch Mak Genggang, who tends to own every chapter she is in. Rude, old and earthily practical, the sequence in which she gate crashes a ball is priceless. Hopefully, she will return in future stories in this sequence.
There is a lot of love in the book, both in how it was written and also between the characters. As well as a wry but nonetheless deeply affecting study of racial tensions, it also looks at gender in a manner that the Regency setting makes both romantic and deeply touching. Zacharias is not a straightforward good guy; that wouldn’t be fair. Rather, he is a decent man trying to do the right thing, occasionally by accident. Prunella, meanwhile, is infuriating even as we and Zacharias love her. We worry for both of them.
If this was a love story alone it would be notable, but’s also a book you don’t want to put down. We quickly get to a level of magic and mayhem lesser fantasy works tease us with for yonks. Here, though, they are dealt with in that very English way that we have recently been disabused of in real life but that this book shows can be achieved again.
Zen Cho lives in England but was not born here. I mention her heritage because when I first read ‘A Game of Thrones’ it pinpointed an English tone so accurately I was astonished to find that the author was American. Like George RR Martin, Zen Cho has captured a wholly English vision from a unique and fascinating viewpoint. This is definitely one of my books of the year and I would recommend it to… well, actually everyone.
This is one of the very best fantasy books I've read in years. The worldbuilding is rich and evocative, the characters realistically and lovingly wrought; it's wonderful. But Zen Cho is an intelligent woman with a polished prose style, and - as those wretched one-star reviews make clear - this book is not for everyone. If you find Jane Austen novels a hard slog, you probably want to go for something easier - Gail Carriger's books are fun, and her prose is a lot more accessible. Zen Cho is assuming you have read some novels that are at least a couple of centuries old, and that you can handle the language and the leisurely storytelling.
The obvious comparison is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel - which, I must confess, I did find a trifle dry. (Although it's a very good book.) I'd say Cho's book has more heart - more of a contemporary sensibility, I suppose, whereas Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrel (like the excellent Everfair) echoes the style of actual period writers by having more emotional distance. It's easier to care about Cho's characters, I think.
I am still champing at the bit for the sequel. Cho's characters aren't necessarily nice or good - at times Prunella Gentlemen almost put me in mind of Becky Sharpe, with her brutal pragmatism, but she isn't wantonly cruel, I think - although neither is she particularly kind. Still, they're all fascinating, and I very much want to see how their stories will unfold.
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Not what I was expecting.
I loved how diverse this book was, even though this is set in Regency London our main character, Zacharias, is African and England's...Read more