The promotional material for Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown is big on the words ‘English magic’, in an understandable attempt to draw in fans of Susannah Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
While it’s tempting to raise an eyebrow at that kind of thing, we’re confident that those who enjoyed the adventures of those two English magicians will have a grand old time with Cho’s hugely entertaining period tale.
Set in Regency London, it’s the story of Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe, who has a lot on his plate when the story begins. As an African man, he’s subjected to the (barely) thinly veiled racism of his peers.
Those peers also believe that he murdered his predecessor and adopted father Sir Stephen, as well as Stephen’s fairy familiar Leofric. Further still, the levels of magic in England are low.
So it’s not a particularly easy time to be in London, which is why he agrees to travel to Mrs Daubeney’s School For Gentlewitches to lecture the ladies on the dangers of witchcraft.
Once there, he realises that English society’s views on the dangers of magic in the hands of women are somewhat outdated, and that prodigiously talented sorceress Prunella Gentleman may hold the key to saving everything.
From the opening pages of Cho’s debut novel, it’s clear that we’re in good hands. It is witty, imaginative and great fun, and manages to turn a critical eye on the dusty patriarchy of Regency-era England while it’s luxuriating in the joys of fairy kingdoms and improperly behaved familiars.
Our two protagonists, Zacharias and Prunella, both find themselves in positions that most members of society think they have no business occupying. The idea of an African Sorcerer Royal is disgraceful to the bulk of his peers, who are happy to blame him for the current poor state of English magic.
And Prunella has been encouraged to curb her magic abilities because it’s widely believed that the female body isn’t strong enough to handle the pressures that the ability would put on such a fragile frame.
The growing relationship between the two of them gives the book its emotional core; Zacharias learns that keeping your head down isn’t always the best way to go (and that Prunella is much stronger than he gave her credit for), and she is taught the importance of self-control when you’re handling a familiar that might eat you.
The plot is rather straightforward and moves at a brisk pace. Cho litters her story with fantastic little details and vivid supporting characters. At times it feels a little light, but Cho is capable of throwing a sucker punch; some moments provide a genuine shock.
If you’re looking for some excellent historical fantasy escapism, this is highly recommended.