Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

I’m back! And I’ve been reading a lot. Who knows what the coming weeks will bring, because life is crazy (I start an MFA in less that 2 weeks? Is that real life?), but if everything goes as planned, I should have another review or two for y’all before the end of the month.

For my first review in a great long while, I’ve got Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. I was approved to review Cho’s debut novel by Netgalley, it is released September 1st. You can find information about preorder here.

Set in Regency London, Sorcerer to the Crown tells the story of Zacharias Wythe, the first Black leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, called the Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias was a slave bought  by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic to prove that Black men and men of other races can use English magic with equal proficiency to the members of the traditionally white-only, male-only Society.

Despite Sir Stephen’s blessing and his considerable magical prowess, Zacharias faces much resistance because of his race, which makes his job even harder during uncertain times while Britain slowly consumes its dwindling reservoir of magic.

I was astounded early on with Cho’s remarkable way of capturing the rhythm and movement of emotional conversation. This kind of dialogue was consistent throughout the novel and remains in my eyes one of the strongest aspects of the book. On the other side of the prose, Cho skilfully rendered her narrator’s scope to convey the time period while maintaining an easily readable and relatable pace and tone. There were very few instances where I felt the register she chose seemed awkward (even those instances didn’t bother me enough to write them down).

My greatest beef with Cho and her narrator is the way she used an omniscient perspective to infuse her modern views into the prose. In the story, women are not permitted magical education and some folks go so far as to purge magical girls of their abilities forcibly. The narrator takes on this issue in a decidedly mocking tone, not representing any of the characters’ sensibilities, which took me out of the story. We already knew that girls rocked at magic anyway because of all the frightened stories men told of a woman who came to harness “too much magic.”

It was obvious from the beginning that women were competent in magic, which raised a question: How the hell did women become excluded from magic-using communities in the first place? Remove all instances of “magic” from the question and I think we see what Cho was driving at, although a bit bluntly.

And since I was already suspecting powerful women magicians were about to become a big issue in the story, I was slightly disappointed with the introduction of who I immediately knew would become a second protagonist, Prunella. Her rise to the forefront of the story was anything but subtle.

I can forgive that, though, because Cho’s unsubtlety in this area was enough to distract me from realizing that PRUNELLA IS FUCKING HILARIOUS until I was already on the floor rolling around in tears. Prunella quickly became the lifeblood of this story with her quick wit, natural aptitude for magic, and unrelenting personality. Very few characters in fiction can pull off being as unabashedly themselves as Prunella does. She is a fantastic woman who embodies so many characteristics we too often don’t get to see in women. She is: naturally really good at magic, defiant, driven, determined, unafraid, and she has the unhesitating capacity to do exactly what she needs to do, even when that means endangering those close to her. What I love most about this last aspect is that she makes hard decisions to save Zacharias and others and (although she may be in love with him) she makes the decisions not from a place of romantic love, but from a place of duty and appreciation.

When I heard this book was about Regency London, I expected to read just another fantasy about white wizards on adventures. I found instead that Cho has (unsurprisingly given her other work) gifted us with a careful and precise treatment of race and power in politics and society. This is most obviously manifested in Zacharias at the start of the novel. When the issue of women in magic is brought up, Zacharias exhibits the same prejudices as the other magicians, shying away from the idea. I felt disappointed at this. Zacharias should recognize this as oppression, shouldn’t he? But I realized Cho was showing us the reality of a marginalized protagonist being so swept up in surviving society that he propagates and never questions the subjugation of women in magic. It would have been easy to make Zacharias an infallible outsider who saw through the veil of tradition and supremacy, but he isn’t, he is quite at fault and we benefit from it as a reader, getting to watch him grow throughout the novel.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a bright book, even in its heavier moments, and though I would’ve loved to have been surprised (and admittedly torn apart) by a dark turn of events, that’s not the book this is and I won’t complain. This is a feel good book to the end. That has been accomplished flawlessly.

As the story wraps up, you can feel all the lines of inquiry raised throughout the novel being carefully knotted and tied. If you had any question in the book, it probably gets answered. This can be seen as positive, but to me the closing of the novel felt too deliberate. However, I’m hopeful this is something Cho will learn to overcome as her career progresses.

Overall, this is not a perfect novel but it is a damn good debut. I look forward to reading what Zen Cho has for us in the future.

Stay tuned on this page in the coming weeks. I’ve got reviews of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu coming soon.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho