…well, okay, it’ll be a review in a second. Griping first. This is the cover of the American edition of Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN:
It’s… fine, I suppose. Makes the book look kinda classy, there’s a dragon on there to make sure that you get the fact that there’s gonna be some magic in the book in case the word “Sorcerer” in the title wasn’t enough for you, it’ll do, right?
THIS IS THE UK EDITION:
PEOPLE! That shit is gorgeous. I want the UK edition! Why did Amazon ship me this red-hued nonsense if that is what the book looks like in other countries? GIMME.
While I’m griping about the cover: Zen Cho is a woman, in case you’re like me and can’t necessarily read gender coding in Malaysian names. (For all I know, “Zen” is like “Pat” and is gender-neutral anyway.) With the single exception of one sentence from Charlie Stross, every single pull quote both at the top of the front cover and the entirety of the back is from a female author, and the vast majority of the authors she’s compared to are women as well. And the quote from Naomi Novik is on there twice. That kinda bugs me; it feels like her editors thought only people who read tons of women authors would be interested in picking this up. There’s a damn dragon on the cover and the book has the word “Sorcerer” in it. If those two things normally get you to read a book, read this book. If knowing that “Zen” was a woman might make you think you’re gonna get girl cooties, first rethink your entire life and approach to same and then read the book anyway. Okay? Thanks.
Anyway. The book.
SORCERER TO THE CROWN is thisclose to making it onto my top 10 shortlist, and is certainly going end up getting mentioned in that post at the end of the year. It’s set in an alternate, vaguely-eighteenth-century Britain (to the best of my recollection no year is ever mentioned) and is mostly concerned with high-society Brits, which is no doubt where the comparisons to Jane Austen come from in those back cover pull quotes. The main character is Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer Royal, the leader of all of Britain’s various thaumaturges and other magical individuals.
Well, sort of. The culture of the magic-users in the book is such that they pretend that magic is the sole purview of gentlemen, but in classic British denial fashion this is done by simply deliberately ignoring that people of all classes and both genders seem to use magic everywhere. Those folks just… don’t count, I guess. Complicating things: Zacharias is African, an ex-slave, manumitted in childhood, whose former owner was the previous Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias’ skin color causes him no end of trouble with the thaumaturges he is supposedly in charge of, who spend most of the book scheming to remove him from his post.
Also complicating things: Britain’s magic, provided by Britain’s connection to Fairy, has been stoppered (as in Zacharias finds a literal cork floating in the air at the border to Fairy at one point) leading to a shortage of magic. Unfortunately, this is one of the book’s shortcomings, as a “shortage of magic” is never really defined and honestly it doesn’t seem to bother the characters or limit what they can do very much despite the fact that they keep complaining about it. Magic is spoken of as a finite resource that can be used up, but you never really see the effects of that finite resource; the characters just worry about it.
The book gets moving when Zacharias takes a trip to the border with Fairy under the pretext of giving a speech at a School for Gentlewitches, which you might think is some sort of Hogwarts equivalent but is actually a boarding school to teach women to not use their magic, because women can’t use magic, so we have to build special schools for them so that we can make sure to train them not to. Get it? (Don’t get the idea that I’m complaining about the book here– this isn’t Cho being sloppy, it’s Cho skewering the culture of the setting she’s working in. It’s nicely done, actually, and Zacharias slowly reasoning out that everything he knows about women and magic is wrong is one of the book’s high points.)
At the school, he meets Prunella, who ends up returning with him to London, only sort of with his permission. Prunella, as it turns out, is already a talented (if untrained) magicienne, and she spends most of the rest of the book turning London’s magical society on its ear.
I won’t spoil more than that, as letting this book unfold naturally is one of the keys to enjoying it, I think. The strength of the book is in its characters; the dialogue is fun if overly British and florid (there’s a big battle scene at the end, and the characters are speechifying and talking in sentences with subordinate clauses through the entire thing, and it works), and while the plot slips up every now and again (there’s a development at the very end that felt a bit shoehorned) it’s generally well-crafted and certainly always interesting. There’s enough little slips here and there to keep this from a full-throated, five-star review, but this is Cho’s first novel and I’ll absolutely be picking up her second. Highly recommended.