In Sorcerer to the Crown, magic in England has been in decline, and the one respected Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is an institution tasked with overseeing magic in the nation. Zen Cho’s novel is a powerful, deliberate story of how politics and magic come together, and what consequences might lie when they do.
Some spoilers ahead.
It’s hard not to compare Sorcerer to the Crown to another regency-era fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Both are concerned with magic in England, its proper use, distribution and governance. Cho’s novel takes a slightly different track, which makes it an interesting story to pick up.
The novel follows Zacharias Wythe, a black man and freed slave who was adopted by the head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, Sir Stephen. Wythe was groomed to take up the Sorcerer Royal role, but once he does so, he faces considerable challenges from the society.
Zacharias earned the title at a time when magic has been declining in England. The conduit between fairyland and England has been corked up, and no new familiars have been spotted in years. Zacharias’s position is threatened by fellow members of his order, who believe that they must take a more aggressive stance against France, which is currently at war with England.
Frustrated and desperate to find a solution to his problems, he journeys to the border of Fairyland, and along the way, meets Prunella Gentlewoman, a woman with an unusual ability to wield magic and a trio of familiars.
At its heart, Sorcerer to the Crown is about challenging long-standing institutions, and Cho makes no bones about just what institutions are being challenged here. Racism and sexism are on display here among members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias, a freed slave, already faces scrutiny and hostility for his position, while Prunella is from a school that works to train women not to use their abilities in the same way men do. That’s not to say that this is a heavy-handed morality tale: it isn’t.
Cho’s story is a political one: how is magic to be used, and in many ways, it’s less a fantasy than it is a political drama: an official hanging desperately onto his post as he tries to navigate what is politically expedient and what is morally right. It’s a tense, interesting narrative that makes the novel stand out.
It’s a powerful topic, and Cho establishes herself as an excellent writer with this debut novel: her pacing is deliberate (this isn’t a book for impatient readers - it’s a slow burn), words precise and her story is excellent. Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy that any fan of Suzanne Clarke will absolutely love.