In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe has just become the first black African Sorcerer Royal. Besides stepping into a minefield of bigotry, he takes up his position at a time of crisis for the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers – England is suffering from a shortage of magic, a calamity that Z has a duty to address in addition to sorting out the Government’s diplomatic gaffe with the witches of another country and the rumours that he murdered the previous Sorcerer Royal, who happened to be his adoptive father.
To escape London for a few days, he travels out of town to give a speech at a school for gentlewitches, where girls of the upper and middle classes are taught to suppress their magical powers. Because, obviously, women are too frail for thaumaturgy. The illogic of misogyny is in full force here. Zacharias has long suspected this assumption to be false, and has in fact been researching the household magic often practiced by female servants but ignored by the gentry. The wilful blindness of bigotry is in full force too. Zacharias’s suspicions are confirmed when the girls show more natural thaumaturgical skill than displayed by the Royal Society snots.
He also meets the formidable Prunella Gentleman, an English–Indian orphan who was taken in by the schoolmistress as a baby. Prunella has such a natural talent for magic that she can throw together complicated impromptu spells whenever she needs them. But unlike Zacharias, who had the advantage of genuinely loving parents, her benefactor sees her more as a prized servant than a daughter, and offers her nothing more than a life of servitude.
Prunella is not the sort of person to accept this bullshit, and when she discovers priceless thaumaturgical treasures left behind by her father, she decides to pursue the life she knows she deserves. She throws on an invisibility spell as easily as a coat and stows away with Zacharias. He’s appalled at the impropriety but hopes her talents will change English society’s beliefs about women, and takes her on as an apprentice.
Sorcerer to the Crown is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It’s charming and funny, full of action, engaging characters and thoughtful worldbuilding. The language is rather pompous if not outright purple, but the style is quite suitable. You get the sense that Cho had a lot of fun with the bombastic sentences and archaic words, and I did too. But where the novel really excels is in its depiction of prejudice and intersectionality. I’m seriously impressed with what Cho has achieved here.
From the moment he steps into the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers at the vulnerable age of six, Zacharias understands that he represents the entire black race to these old white men. That’s one of the ways in which bigotry functions: people aren’t viewed as individuals but as undifferentiated parts of a monolithic group. The behaviour of one is used to characterise all, usually only when it’s negative. When Zacharias casts a spell to demonstrate his magical abilities, he’s not just proving that he deserves a place in the Society – he’s fighting the assumption that black people are little more than talking animals. And he has to do it as a tiny child with a crowd of strange old men grumbling about being “summoned to watch a piccaninny stutter” (4). If he fails, they’ll never chalk it up to nerves, intimidation or youth; they’re going to say that black people are stupid and can’t do magic.
Of course Zacharias performs brilliantly, but since racism isn’t rational, no amount of talent can dispel the general belief that he’s a barbarian. The fact that he wields the staff that only the chosen Sorcerer Royal could wield grants him tenuous acceptance only because no one can argue with the fact of the staff. However, Zacharias doesn’t have a familiar, which is highly irregular. And because he was the last person to see Sir Stephen before he died, and he’s never revealed exactly what happened that night, some members of the Society are inclined to believe he murdered his benefactor. Never mind that Zacharias was, in part, so traumatised by the death of his father that he hasn’t been able to talk to these assholes about it.
His relationship with Sir Stephen isn’t a simple one though. He loves his father and is loved in return, but being both adopted and black, he treaded carefully for fear that “he might find he was no longer wanted” (17). As a result, “their relationship could never have been mistaken for one of equality” (120).
Sir Stephen lives on as a ghost and communicates regularly with Zacharias, and it’s interesting to see how death has changed their relationship. Zacharais can be more straightforward with his father, because he no longer has to worry about being left destitute. The gaps created by “wealth, influence age and obligation” […] had closed imperceptibly” and Zacharias is able “to see in the spirit the frailties of the man” (120).
And Sir Stephen certainly has his shortcomings; he’s not an unfailingly good, wise saviour figure. For example, he only signed Zacharias’s emancipation papers when he was thirteen. You’d think he would not have dithered when freeing his son from slavery, but he’s perhaps too comfortable to be truly revolutionary. One of the moments I find notable in the book is when Sir Stephen reprimands Zacharias for being overzealous about reform: “But you have not my advantages, you know. Besides, I know my limits, my dear fellow – I know my limits” (81).
Yes, Sir Stephen is suggesting that social reform is best handled by the privileged, and you don’t want to change things too much because, I suppose, it’s hard to keep a stiff upper lip with society shifting towards equality beneath you. What I like about this exchange is that these words are literally uttered by an old dead white man whose character isn’t purely good or evil, just tainted by privilege. As generous and well-meaning as Sir Stephen is, he was never going to change society.
Mind you, Z isn’t a radical either. Raised to be a consummate gentleman, his reaction to racism has been to counteract stereotypes by being as dignified and disciplined as possible:
His chief aim had always been that he should stand beyond reproach in word and deed, since his colour seemed to prove a ground for any allegation. (236)
What this means, is that he’s a stiff, reserved person. He never loses his poise, which may be admirable, but it’s because he doesn’t have the freedom to do so:
his life had been such as to cultivate his ability to feign complaisance even when he was angriest. For all the privileges Sir Stephen’s patronage had lent him, Zacharias could not often afford the liberty of honest emotion. (41)
So Zacharias is character within a character; his civility [is] a polite fiction, disguising very different feelings (171). You don’t quite see the dual nature of his existence in the book, perhaps because his true side has been so deeply suppressed, but the issue is there and it’s something I’d be interested to see developed in later books.
Prunella is a stark contrast; she’s my new role model for not giving a fuck. She knows she’s talented and pretty and is never afraid to admit it or use it to her advantage. She’s got little regard for etiquette or anyone’s convenience, but she’s not a boor. She’s ruthless yet kind. She’s not interested in pleasing anyone but herself and it’s this selfishness that empowers her and saves her from being boring. It also gives her the means to change society in ways that Zacharias cannot, although at the same time she needs his support to do it.
Prunella is such an adept character, so unfailingly smart and talented, that I had to consider the possibility that she’s too perfect. Not for very long though; I find her immensely enjoyable, partly because she’s a bit frightening but without being demonised the way capable women often are. And I love that she doesn’t have to spend most of the book figuring out that she is neither ordinary nor a doormat, as often seems to happen to young female protagonists of the special snowflake variety.
There are also moments when you realise how desperately Prunella needs her self-confidence. As a brown female orphan, she’s even more disempowered and vulnerable than Zacharias, and this is where Cho’s depiction of intersectionality comes into play. Both protagonists are POC, but they experience privilege and prejudice differently. Because her skin is lighter, Prunella has an easier time being accepted in London’s high society, and she has a bit more freedom because she’s not in a public position of authority.
That said, she has no legitimate way of using her talents to make a decent living as a man might. At best, she could use magic to aid whatever menial work she could find. Zacharias, as a man with “all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime’s intercourse with the good and great of the magical world” (9), remains blind to the vulnerability of Prunella’s position until she explains it to him.
And he’s shocked when Prunella states that she has little interest in scholarship and will be devoting her time to entering society and finding a respectable husband. From his perspective, she could want nothing more than to study magic, now that she has the luxury of his support. He also considers it her moral responsibility: she has unprecedented power, which could be highly destructive if she does not know how to wield it. But what will happen, Prunella asks, when her apprenticeship is over? She is not being lazy or stupid here, and she is not consumed by a longing for romance. She’s being practical: the right husband will give her the security she needs to change English society’s approach to feminine magic.
The prejudices of English society are actually shown to be holding it back – a notable aspect of the plot and worldbuilding. From what we learn of other countries and Fairyland (the source of magic), the narrow-minded nature of English society is actually causing it damage. Bigotry is, after all, poison.
Now, despite my enthusiasm, I don’t think this is a masterpiece. The novel’s weakest point is probably its plot, which gets a bit out of hand and isn’t particularly memorable in comparison to the book’s many other charms. The POV also jumps all over the place, although this might be something that’s more likely to bug me now that I’m editing for a living. The less pedantic me can ignore it, and anyway I like this book so much I’m willing to overlook its flaws. Rather, I want to give out copies as shining examples of how you can write diverse, thoughtful fantasy and be entertaining as fuck.