Friday, April 5, 2019

Book Review - Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Published by: Ace
Publication Date: September 1st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 385 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Zacharias Wythe has succeeded to the post of Sorcerer Royal. A post he doesn't particularly want, which is about the only thing him and his fellow magicians agree on; they want Zacharias out. There was only one person in the world who thought Zacharias was capable of this lofty post, and Sir Stephen, his guardian and surrogate father, is dead but not quite gone. Sir Stephen was everything a Sorcerer Royal should be, in other words, not the wrong skin color, not a freed slave, and not without the aid of a familiar. But just because Zacharias doesn't want the position doesn't mean he won't do it to the best of his abilities, if just for Sir Stephen. Yet London is politically dangerous at the moment with the crown attempting to coerce the Sorcerer Royal into untenable positions and the magicians trying to hide the fact that magic is waning. Zacharias knows full well that his unwillingness to help the government is quite possibly the last straw before his fellow Unnatural Philosophers oust him under the pretext that it is his fault that magic is dying. But he can not in good conscience use magic against the witches of Janda Baik, a small island in Malaysia. By using magic militarily he would break the treaty with the French magicians and if there's one thing England doesn't want it's Napoleon being allowed to use magic. So taking the advice of a dear friend he agrees to get out of town for a few days to give a talk at Mrs. Daubeney's School for Gentlewitches as well as to go to the border of fairy and see why England's magic is waning.

Miss Prunella Gentleman came to Mrs. Daubeney with her father as a young girl. In fact it was Mr. Gentleman's passing and Prunella's inherent magical abilities that led Mrs. Daubeney to form her school with the purpose of helping young gentlewitches to suppress their powers. Though Prunella has never been one of the "gentlewitches." The color of her skin and her debt to Mrs. Daubeney has made her a servant if not in name than in deed as she's taken care of the students and the school. Everything changes the day the Sorcerer Royal visits. It's not just the hurt inflicted by Mrs. Daubeney when she demotes Prunella, it's the secret she finds in the attic in an old valise that belonged to her father. A secret that could change Prunella's fortune and the course of English magic. Zacharias is beside himself at the school. England is languishing for lack of magic and yet here these young girls are brimming with more magic than they can handle; and then there's Prunella. Prunella does magic as easily as she breaths. Perhaps the Royal Society is wrong about banning women to work magic. Perhaps Zacharias's legacy as Sorcerer Royal will be a complete overhaul of magical education. Prunella wastes no time worming her way into Zacharias's life, which she repeatedly saves, and when the two of them arrive in London, it is time for a reckoning. They will shake up the staid Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and bring about change, whether they mean to or not.

The reason I became in thrall to Regency books with a magical bent is all down to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I can not nor will not be able to ever completely verbalize my love of that book. Yet my love for it isn't a blind love. I know the book is flawed. The characters aren't that likable, there isn't that much of a plot, and it reads more as a history text written in gorgeous prose than a story about flesh and blood people. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell lacks emotion. Not just in the staid way the story is told but in the way you connect to the characters. There is no emotional connection to Strange or Norrell. You feel sympathy for Stephen and Lady Pole, but there's no tugging of heartstrings. That is where Sorcerer to the Crown comes in and fills that void you didn't know you had. It's almost as if this book took the character we could connect to the most in Clarke's writing, Stephen, and gave him a new adventure. Stephen Black, the man who would be king, instead becomes Sorcerer Royal. Though while the first few chapters definitely owe a great debt to Susanna Clarke, as soon as Prunella shows up on the scene the book explodes into a life of it's own. One wonders if it was the lack of a strong female presence in Clarke's book, aside from the narrator, that might have hindered the emotional connection. Because there's something about Prunella that is so alive, so complex, that you can't help but connect to her on a deep emotional level, even if at times you totally disagree with some of her mercenary tactics. This in turn helps you to connect to Zacharias and every other character. You feel the love and hate and frustration of all these characters and you will not admit to yourself that it's going to be a very long wait for the next installment.

For as many authors as have tackled the idea of magic in the 19th century there have been as many different magic systems to govern them. Clarke went with a more male based "masculine" skill set, while Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamourist Histories" embraced the "home" arts and focused more on magic as an art form mainly practiced by women. Here we get a lovely melding of the two. There are the Unnatural Philosophers who think they are doing great works while there are the more hedge witch like servant women who use magic to light fires and cure ills. So while we still have the societal separation of abilities based on gender we get to see how each gender handles that magic. Plus with Zacharias having his eyes opened by Prunella we see that going forward these two separate spheres of magic could merge. With Prunella we have a force of nature whose magic, while until now has been forced to be subservient to the domestic sphere, is now unfettered and out in the world where she doesn't see anything wrong with using her copious abilities to do what she pleases when she pleases. By being forced to abide by the rules for so long she sees that the rules, the boundaries, are irrelevant. Just throw the rule book out the window and see what you are capable of. Who cares if magic has personal gain? Who cares if a woman is seen doing unsanctioned magic? You shouldn't have to deny who you are and what you are capable of. If you are a woman you shouldn't have to curse yourself to be what men expect you to be.

This is what I love about the book, that it's the outsiders that are the ones that see that magic is being unnecessarily restrained. The stuffy men in even stuffier rooms have been saying for centuries this is how it has always been done and will continue to be so. There can be no advancement of technique, no discoveries with an attitude like this. Therefore it isn't shocking that magic has been dwindling. Even taking out the fairy angle with regard to the bottling, look to the lack of familiars! There hasn't been a new familiar in so long that this fact is able to undermine Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal though it has nothing to do with him. Why would magic want to come to those who use it in the same boring ways since time immemorial? Magic comes to those who understand it and want to use it right. Look to Mak Grenggang from Janda Baik in Malaysia who is at the heart of Zacharias's problems with the British government. She is not only an unaccepted gender, but an unaccepted race as viewed by the Society's members, yet her magic can let her walk through fairy unmolested, give her wings, gain her access anywhere. Her magic is unrivaled. Because she is an outsider, she is "other," and therefore the only way forward. The three agents of change with regard to British magic are of different skin tone and two of them are women, something that is rarely seen in writing concerning the Regency period. Zacharias, Prunella, and Mak Grenggang are there to break the chains of magic and make it great once again.

What is most interesting about this book is that it gives us a different view then the traditional Jane Austen magical pastiche. In almost every single one of these books we are given a very Anglocentric view of the world. We see it through the eyes of Britain, and the political and magical challenges are all to do with the British Government and the war with France. To an extent this is to be expected because the key feature of the Regency period was England's ongoing war with Napoleon. But despite this fact there are other places and other people that aren't all white and from the upper classes. This was one of the angles I loved in Mary Robinette Kowal's series, which was explored even further in her final book in the series, Of Noble Family. In her writing we saw people that were different, we saw people representing different classes, different races, different genders. We saw that despite what the British upper classes would like you to believe, that the world is teaming with this other. I loved how Of Noble Family brought in how other magic systems worked and how learning magic from one culture is so confining. In Sorcerer to the Crown we not only see these different races, but we go further. With Mak Grenggang we have a link to the other side of the world, a link that plays into Prunella's past. We get a glimpse that not only is the magic different, but the myths and realities and monsters are not what those in the Western world would even like to dwell on. We are given a hint as to how big the world really is. A tiny little island might have controlled the world, but this shows that despite how England tried, it couldn't control the magic; and I for one can't wait to learn more about this magic.

Yet magic can not exist without a vessel in which to channel it. Therefore our human characters are so very important and I just love that within a book that struggles to balance the different forms of magic and the powers of male versus female that everything is embodied in the differences exemplified by Zacharias and Prunella. They are complete opposites that over the course of the narrative come to a middle ground where they meet and fall in love. This is the most Austen of all the Regency tropes in Sorcerer to the Crown. Though I wouldn't say it's a situation of pride versus prejudice, it's more Zacharias's sense versus Prubella's sensibility. Zacharias is beyond selfless. He has literally given up any dreams he had for his life to live the life that Sir Stephen had envisioned for him, even though Sir Stephen is dead, technically. Zacharias is in constant pain threading the political needle his life has become and the burden the office has placed on his shoulders. He is quiet, circumspect, willing to bear the weight of the world while trying to not rock the boat. Whereas Prunella is a veritable hurricane. She is nothing like Zacharias who thinks first and contemplates a long time before swinging into action. She will do whatever it takes to survive and deal with the consequences later, be it two ladies of the ton seeing her zoom by on a cloud, or conjuring a monster and almost destroying Lyme Regis. Prunella will survive and thrive and she will leverage Zacharias to do so. Yet her magic over time becomes less wild and more about protecting Zacharias, while Zacharias himself unbuttons a little and starts to be active in his own life. They need each other and that love is perhaps the greatest magic in this book.


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