“There are certain advantages to being outcast,” said Zacharias. “One is set at liberty from many anxieties. There is no call to worry about what others will think, when they already think the worst.”
– Sorcerer to the Crown, a Sorcerer Royal novel
Late in 2015, a friend sent me this article and recommend that I check out the new fantasy novel it discussed, Zen Cho’s masterpiece, Sorcerer to the Crown the first installment of her Sorcerer Royal trilogy. I managed to find a copy of the glossy hardcover in the back corner of the fantasy section, which definitely made me feel like I was a fantasy supergeek (I’m not, but a girl can dream).
A few pages in, it was more than evident that this was my kind of story. Set in eighteenth-century England in an alternate universe where magic is quantifiable, sorcery is a profession, a place called Fairyland houses creatures called “familiars” while classist oppression and the patriarchy are still very present. Protagonist Zacharias Smith is a black freed slave who was taken in by the wealthy Sir Stephen and Lady Wythe. The novel starts with a prologue in which a child Zacharias, a sorcerer, has been asked to perform a complex spell in front of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the most prestigious magical society in Britain.
We then meet adult Zacharias, who is now Sorcerer Royal, the highest office of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers, having replaced Sir Stephen who has recently died. While facing daily racism including all sorts of cringe-worthy microaggressions, Zacharias is seeking to find the reason for a shortage of magic in England that has placed the Society on the verge of crisis.
While on a routine visit to a magic school on his way to London, Zacharias meets the sassy, bold, queen-of-giving-zero-shits, Prunella, a dark-skinned orphan who works as a headmistress’ assistant at a school for female “magiciennes”. In this world, girls born with the gift of magic are trained at a separate school than boys, and learn how to suppress their magical abilities, while also being trained in mundane household spells. Horrified by the dangerous suppression tactics used by the magiciennes, Zacharias vows to reform Britain’s educational system for women, after identifying the reason for the sudden decline in magic.
Prunella and Zacharias end up traveling to London together where they shake things up in their world in every possible way. Zacharias’ cautious, careful nature is constantly challenged by Prunella’s bold recklessness. They exchange hilarious dialogue, save each other’s lives more than once, and share the subtler nuances of magical skill. In between the madness, Zacharias and Prunella can relate to being seen as outsiders in their world. Men exoticize and sexualize Prunella – her dark skin and almond-shaped eyes being of creepy appeal to them, while Zacharias’ authority is endlessly challenged due to his skin colour.
The scene that was most memorable to me was one in which Prunella finally plucks up the courage to ask Zacharias about his past. Zacharias explains how Mr. and Mrs. Wythe bought him from his master in the West Indies, leaving his parents enslaved.
“I am held by bonds of gratitude”, (Zacharias) said. The words were bitter on his tongue. “I was born a slave, you know, and should have passed my days in backbreaking labour if Sir Stephen had not taken notice of me. It was by the merest chance that we met. He was travelling on the Minerva in the West Indies, conducting a study of maritime magic levels. He purchased me from the captain, brought me to England, manumitted and educated me.” (…)
A fine line appeared between Prunella’s eyebrows. “Did not Sir Stephen purchase your parents as well?”
“No,” said Zacharias. “Presumably he did not discern the same potential in them.”
The statement brought up the old anger and confusion, followed by the accustomed guilt, that he should be so ungrateful as to resent the man who had rescued him from bondage. And yet he did resent Sir Stephen, even now.
This scene is a perfect example of the complexities of English morality and colonialism. Throughout the book, everyone praises the Wythes for taking in poor Zacharias, and of course they do truly love him. But no one seems to acknowledge that the Whythe’s plucked him out of his family and his culture and raised him in their own, without even the slightest acknowledgement or legitimization of his traumatic past. Zacharias is indeed held by bonds of gratitude. He doesn’t feel that he has permission to feel grief, to feel resentment, to even ask the Wythes why they left his parents behind. He feels he ought to be grateful for being so fortunate, and to feel the trauma that the separation from his family caused is seen as petulance.
Cho’s novel is the perfect mix of magic and realism. In this world magic is a science studied by the elite, a finite substance that comes from another world. The Austen-esque dialogue is expertly crafted to transport the reader into another time and place, while the subversive and unpredictable actions of the story’s protagonists make this a hard book to put down. The perspective transitions seamlessly between Prunella and Zacharias, we learn about both of them through their opinions and assumptions of one another.
I would recommend this book to anyone. It’s an easy enough read, with a deliciously rich, dialogue-heavy narrative that takes the reader on a winding, often hilarious and touching journey. It is definitely one that I will read again, and I certainly look forward to more Sorcerer Royal novels to come!