Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of book you need to read while sipping tea from a porcelain cup and wearing a monocle. Of course, I did neither of those things while reading Zen Cho’s fantasy novel, but they certainly would have set the mood perfectly.
The easiest way to describe Sorcerer is to say that it is exactly the book that would have been written if Georgette Heyer had decided to write a diverse fantasy novel. The language and flavor of the period is straight out of a Heyer romance, and that (from me) is not a critique.
The plot of the novel centers on Prunella Gentleman and Zacharias Wythe (two magical characters that couldn’t be more different). Zacharias is the Sorcerer Royal, and while that should get him a bit of respect from his fellow magicians, they spend most of their time trying to figure out how they can remove him from his elevated position. He’s a good, quiet man and, unfortunately, is having difficulty dealing with all the drama surrounding his rise to power.
Prunella, on the other hand, grew up in a school for gentlewitches. Far from teaching young ladies magic, however, the school seeks to instruct girls on how to suppress their abilities since England does not allow proper women to practice magic. Since Prunella is not a proper English lady (i.e. her mother was most likely from India) she occupies an odd place in the school. She is less than a student but more than a servant—at least until a student complains about her actions and the mistress is forced to make her into a servant after all. After having been betrayed by the woman who raised her, Prunella’s prepared to do whatever it takes to find a position outside of the school and in society, including agreeing to train as a magician under Zacharias.
With England’s magic in decline, fairies and vampiress on the warpath, and frequent murder attempts, Zacharias and Prunella have a lot to deal with as she learns magic (and tries to find a husband) and he attempts to figure out who has it in for him. Of course, everything goes haywire since there is magic involved.
I’ve been reading Gaslamp Fantasies for years now, but Sorcerer to the Crown is one of the best. Its focus on having diverse leads is wonderful because it adds a different POV than what’s normally seen in fantasy novels set in and around the 1800’s. Just in general, though, Prunella and Zacharias were fascinating characters. I particularly liked Prunella because she was so ruthless and mercenary. Her actions weren’t presented as wicked either—which I liked because everything she did was very practical. Zacharias wasn’t quite so interesting, but I liked him all the same because his responses to all the issues he had to deal with made him a fascinating character.
The story itself was quick moving and exciting. There was A LOT going on in Sorcerer to the Crown so it was very difficult to get bored. This was not a talking Gaslamp fantasy. It was very much a romp with action and danger. Like I said, it reminded me of a Georgette Heyer novel but it is especially like the ones that have cross-dressing and whole hoards of people riding coaches through the countryside in pursuit of each other. Basically, it was a lot of fun (and even had a The Little Mermaid moment at the end that was particularly absurd and enjoyable).
My only critique really is that the world of the novel was a bit chaotic at times. It appears that this will be the first in a series (since it’s subtitled “A Sorcerer Royal Novel”), and I’m glad because there were a lot of details thrown in this book without much explanation or development. Between the fairies, the workings of familiars, and the general sort of way that magic behaves, I felt overwhelmed. Hopefully, these sorts of world development bits and bobs will be focused on more in later novels. I liked the universe Zen Cho created here, but I would have been okay with the novel being a bit longer so all the little details didn’t remain quite so compact and unexplained.
Other than just the sheer amount of information in the novel, however, I adored Sorcerer to the Crown plenty. If you like Georgette Heyer, fantasies set in alternate realities, or the movie, Belle, this is a book you should definitely pick up. I highly recommend it!