By Katie Stockdale
Fantasy epics revolve around magic, and with fantasy novels circling around our generation, it might be hard to believe that authors can continue to come up with new, unique and in-depth systems of magic. But Zen Cho’s done exactly that in her new book Sorcerer to the Crown, which mixes Regency-era London with a complex hierarchy of magic predicated on relations with other worlds.
The Regency-era (pre-Victorian) of the early 19th century is an interesting time to set a fantasy novel. At that time, magic had fallen by the wayside in culture, it was no longer as prolific as in medieval times nor as feared as in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, nor even experiencing the resurgence it is now. By choosing to set the novel in a time when magic was more or less ignored, Cho explores the relationship between her secret society and the actual society of London without resorting to the common themes of war and Inquisition. Instead, Cho illuminates how magic would work within the government of England, the government providing funding and the Sorcerer’s Society providing magical favors.
Of course as with every government enterprise there is a measure of exploitation and politicking that is explored through one of the main character’s dealings as Sorcerer Royal, the most powerful Sorcerer in England. Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal, has to balance the demands of the government, the Society of Sorcerers and their dealings with foreign magicians. And Zacharias has many things going against him: he became Sorcerer Royal after his guardian, the previous Sorcerer Royal, mysteriously died. Zacharias is not technically a gentlemen (as Sorcerers are supposed to be); and, most condemning of all, he is a freed slave.
Unsurprisingly, Zacharias is extremely unpopular, causing him to have to juggle the Society’s biased demands on him, the government’s idiotic meddling, and the crux of the novel: England’s sudden and unexplained drop in magic. Throughout the novel, Zacharias proves himself to be, despite his humble origins, perfectly decorous, tremendously diplomatic, and more of a gentleman than his native English fellows. Cho uses this to combat the racist social structures of the early 1800s, but her meaning does not stop with the last word. She urges us all to put aside assumed social prejudices and to judge people for who they are by their actions and their words.
As another stricture on regency culture, Cho illustrates the unequal position of women by producing a Sorceress as the second main character. Prunella, another character of uncertain origin and half-caste, contradicts the common Society-held belief that women are too “fragile” to practice magic. Prunella is just the beginning of this exposure, as throughout the novel, readers are introduced to more and more women who refute this idea, and soon Zacharias himself realizing that he was wrong to accept Society-dictated prejudices. Zacharias soon notices the similarities between his situation and Prunella’s, as well as similarities between his situation and many other minorities; women, the poor, and ethnic minorities. As Zacharias notices the inequalities around him where he originally thought there were none, the reader considers their own world and wonders if it is truly just.
There’s more to the story than social commentary, and one of the most interesting aspects is the magic. Cho’s world holds that magic is in the very atmosphere for magicians and sorcerers can draw upon, but the magic comes from somewhere else. Generally, this somewhere else is Fairyland, a world of magical creatures that is both outside our world and bordering it. And it is from this border that magic is supposed to flow into England. But when it slows down, no one can say why, and with tensions with Fairyland already high, it’s up to Zacharias to figure out why.
Fairyland also provides familiars, which are magical creatures that bond to magicians and provided them with enough extra magic that they are deemed sorcerers. Yet because of previous Englishmen storming the border of Fairyland and forcing magical creatures to become their familiars, the Queen of Fairyland has closed the border to traffic from England. Since then, no familiars have been able to be summoned, so there have been no new sorcerers, except for Zacharias himself. His inability to explain this occurrence, and the problem of familiars itself, serve to make even more trouble for Zacharias and to illustrate just what happens when people become a bit too greedy, no matter what the resource is.
The only downside to this book is that, to submerge the reader into its world, the language is that of the Regency-era, or that of the early 19th century: “All this talk of Puffett’s impenetrability is humbug! Any middling thaumaturge could cast it. All that is needed is a modicum of ability— and a candle, of course.” For those wishing to read for relaxation or fun, it can be a bit off-putting, especially if you didn’t like puzzling out Victorian writers in English classes. The good part is that the language does its job, making the story extremely vivid.
Cho’s created an absorbing magical world on par with fantasy gurus such as Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, and her characters are both engaging and clever, leaving her story to reach far beyond the pages of her novel. Zacharias’s story didn’t disappoint, and the answers to his secrets will leave you wishing for more of his world.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org