Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is set in nineteenth-century London, where magical resources are scarce and only men of a certain standing are encouraged to practice sorcery. It tells the story of Zacharias Whyte, protégé of England's premier magician, and Prunella Gentleman, the prodigy who can restore English magic to its former glory. Both essentially orphaned as babies, Zacharias and Prunella have grown up as outsiders in their home culture, and have had to navigate a social landscape that doesn't quite know what to do with them. Zacharias was born to enslaved parents and purchased as an infant by the wealthy Englishman who would raise him as his son, and Prunella is the daughter of a British officer who came back from India with a daughter of mixed heritage and a bag of mysterious magical objects.
Zacharias and Prunella's meeting and courtship are made up of building blocks common in the plots of historical romance novels, such as catching each other at embarrassing, uncharacteristic moments, bumping against protocol and propriety when attempting to spend time casually together and—accidentally and otherwise—saving each other's life. Prunella is also an obvious riff on Cinderella—never having known her mother and having lost her father at a young age, she's raised by a woman who promised to take care of her but instead employs Prunella as a maid. And while Prunella's only path to financial stability and independence is marriage, her guardian has no plans to aid Prunella in finding a suitable husband.
Cho executes all of these tropes very well—they mostly feel familiar and comforting rather than stifling or trite—but the book's true strength shines in the deviations Cho introduces into these standard scripts by choosing these particular characters. Zacharias isn't just a young man forced into the limelight before he's ready, nor is he simply the adopted boy with no pedigree who has a complicated relationship with his wealthy step-parents. Zacharias's parents were only able to acquire him because of a system that treats people like Zacharias as disposable objects, and his love and gratitude to them is complicated by this fact.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the subtle background relationship between Zacharias and the ghost of the man who raised him, Sir Stephen Whyte. Having grown up indebted to Sir Stephen, Zacharias finds that in death, Sir Stephen suddenly becomes his equal, and their communications gain a new form of candor. Their relationship is a minefield of hurt, sacrifice and genuine affection, and Cho navigates those complexities with satisfying ease. The lightheartedness of Sorcerer to the Crown allows Cho to delve into some dark places, enriching her story and making it heavy with meaning underneath a surface of quick wit and magical comedy. Prunella, for example, must uncover the secret of her heritage, her mother's true identity and the truth of her father's time in India. In between hilarious hijinks like settling disputes between pupils at Mrs. Daubeney's School for Gentlewitches, escaping to London illegally, and flirting with as many men as possible to find a suitable husband, Prunella must account for the pain of never having known her parents, of the weight of colonialism on her family's history, of the things war and exploitation have taken from her.
No review of Sorcerer would be complete without addressing Mak Genggang, arguably the novel's third protagonist. An elderly witch from Southeast Asia, she comes to London to address the supernatural turmoil happening in her country, which the British are considering intervening in. While partly used as a comic element - disrupting fancy London parties and dispensing advice—Mak Genggang is, in an England that convinces its daughters to injure themselves in order to allow men more magical power, a female magical leader who commands nothing but respect and admiration. Cho manages to make her simultaneously hilarious and fearsome, imbuing her, like all the other characters, with her own unique set of biases and blind spots.
It's extraordinary and unusual, in my reading experience at least, for a paranormal novel set in Britain during colonial times to have three people so directly affected by colonialism as its protagonists. Sorcerer upsets an established status quo in the mainstream of steampunk and Victorian fantasy—British colonialism in these novels is usually either excised from the narrative or tacitly acknowledged in the background, but never dwelled upon, especially not in books about light-hearted paranormal adventures. Cho puts these things front and center, allows them their proper weight, and still manages to make the book feel like a light adventure novel.
Another noteworthy aspect of Sorcerer is its focus on the intricacies of oppression. Zacharias Whyte grows up experiencing racism in a very particular way, which doesn't mean he instantly understands all forms of discrimination. When he encounters Prunella, for example, he can see immediately the disadvantages she faces due to her darker skin and status as an orphan, but he fails to see the ways being a woman has impacted her experience. When she talks of wanting to escape her wicked not-step-mother Zacharias takes it for a petty quarrel that can be settled by someone rational and authoritative like himself. When Prunella talks about marriage Zacharias characterizes her concerns as flighty and indulgent, the fantasies of a girl who likes romance. It takes Prunella sitting him down and explaining how the world works for Zacharias to realize how vital a marital alliance is to her survival.
Some of this wonderful, textured complexity can be seen in the first scene where Prunella and Zacharias are alone, and where Prunella tries to convince Zacharias, by any means at her disposal, to help her escape to London.
"I beg you will put yourself in my position, sir. Someone owned you as a son. There were those who had a stake in your success. But if you were me—with no family, no one upon whose charity or affection you could depend—would not it seem to you that there was no place in the world for one such as yourself?"
[. . .]
"Someone owned me, indeed," [Zacharias] said slowly. It was not an inaccurate assertion, though it was long since he had been emancipated. Sir Stephen had got around to signing the necessary papers when Zacharias turned thirteen—a curious birthday present for a thirteen-year-old boy. "I should like to help you, Miss Gentleman, but consider, would you be any better in London? How would you live? The city is no kinder than the country to those who have no place in the world. Here, at least, you have food and shelter, even if you have fallen out with your mistress." (pp. 92-93)
Prunella doesn't realize the weight of the words "someone owned you" to someone like Zacharias, and he, while receptive to her obvious plight, can't imagine how a young woman could survive in London on her own. This exchange also presents the basis of the love story central to the novel: Prunella and Zacharias grew up having very similar experiences, but they can't see those similarities at first. It takes time and intimacy and a shifting of their individual viewpoints for each of them to consider the other as a potential partner, romantically as well as professionally, as sorcerers and advocates for change in the existing magical systems of England.
Finally, not enough good things can be said about the humor in this book. Dragon familial relations, comedy derived from social mores of nineteenth-century England, hilarious side characters like the maid comprised of bedding Prunella animates to bring along as a chaperone. Even in its final moments the novel managed to make me laugh by introducing talking caterpillars right before Zacharias and Prunella finally confess their feelings to each other.
In summary, Cho's deftness with humor and complex characters, as well as her commitment to addressing the less photogenic aspects of fantasy set in nineteenth-century England, makes Sorcerer to the Crown the best fantasy book I've read in 2015 so far. I look forward to seeing it compete for awards, and will certainly be purchasing the sequel as soon as it comes out.
Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She holds degrees in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She currently spends most of her time working on her first fantasy novel. You can follow her on Twitter or email her to say hi.