I said this on Twitter, but I feel like I need to put this sentiment someplace more permanent: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is a delight.
It was exactly the book I needed to read. On the surface, it’s a series of hijinks and scrapes but it’s doing a lot more underneath the surface. It’s an exploration of racism, sexism, and colonialism all in the guise of a fantasy novel set in early 19th century England.
Zacharias Wythe is England’s Sorcerer Royal. He’s new to the post, having taken over after his adoptive father, Sir Stephen Wythe, died. Armed with the staff of the Sorcerer Royal but not accompanied by the familiar Leofric, Zacharias is not really accepted by the other magicians in England by virtue of the fact that he is black—born a slave and only manumitted as a young teenager by Sir Stephen. He has had to prove and prove again his magical ability and his competence—being in possession of the staff is not enough.
Prunella Gentleman is a young woman of uncertain circumstance and parentage who resides and assists at a school for young women with magical ability: the school teaches them to tamp down their abilities because women are perceived as being too frail to manage magic (shades of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist series here).
Together…they fight crime.
Okay, they don’t fight crime but Zacharias does end up speaking at Prunella’s school, there’s an incident and the next thing he knows, he’s agreed to take her to London in order so she may find a husband but also as his (secret) apprentice.
But there are other things going on: a strange block on the magic coming into England from Fairyland, a witch of Janda Baik (the fearsome and awesome Mak Genggang, and I the only one who wants a book about her terrorizing men all over the world because I would pay good money for that, please take note), mysterious rocks that Prunella has inherited from her father, and plots—so many plots within plots.
Cho manages this completely over the top plot (even by Regency romance standards—and there is a romance here, too—it’s a bit much) and still manages to convey the extreme constraints that Zacharias is under due to his race and those that Prunella has due to both her gender and her race. It’s thoughtfully and sensitively conveyed, but it’s always there—I’d say it’s background radiation, but it’s more palpable than that. They suffer constant slights and aspersions on their characters and abilities and still they keep on keeping on—because they have no other choice in the matter.
This is, through and through a delightful book and one told by a consummate storyteller: I can’t wait to read what Cho has in store for us in the years to come (this is the first book of a trilogy! yay!).
(And this reminds me that I bought her short story collection, Spirits Abroad, quite some time ago and it’s been languishing in my to be read pile. I think I need to rectify that.)