It is a difficult time for The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. While they are one of the most respected organizations in pursuit of the study and practice of magic in the world, certainly the foremost in all of England, recent events have thrown the society into chaos. While there are many Unnatural Philosophers, or Thaumaturges, in England only a magic-user with a familiar (a native of Fairyland who has chosen to exile itself and bond with a human) may call himself a Sorcerer. And the number of Sorcerers within England has been declining at an alarming rate for years. Some blame the lack of Sorcerers on what seems to be England’s dwindling supply of magic. Others blame it on a widening rift between our world and Fairyland. But for many, the most likely reason is the new Sorcerer Royal: Zacharias Wythe. Zacharias is an African, and former slave, who was freed and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe. When Sir Stephen died, Zacharias claimed the title of Sorcerer Royal, even though he did not have a familiar! No one knows what happened in that room the night Sir Stephen died. Zacharias is the only one who can provide answers, but will not speak while leaving others to gossip and speculate. Compounding these difficulties, is a non-magical war between England and France. In addition a recent meeting with the Sultan of Janda Baik over the matter of witches and snake-women “running amok” in India concluded disastrously. Plus there are the assassination attempts, which are troublesome, especially when they are nearly successful.
In an attempt to secure a brief respite from the pressures of office, Zacharias accepts an invitation to speak at Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, where young ladies of breeding are taught how to control their impulses to practice magic since it is forbidden for women to do so. But instead of being the restful retreat from London he was expecting, the engagement results in his making the acquaintance of one Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of uncertain parentage who has more natural magical ability than most of the members of the Society. And that natural ability immediately challenges the standard that women are simply unable to properly practice magic. Zacharias is forced to confront a prejudice long held by the Society and he must take action. He agrees to apprentice Miss Gentleman, but soon realizes that this will not be an easy venture because she is willful, headstrong and blunt in speaking her mind. Zacharias doesn’t know everything about this young woman and her powerful secrets, which, when revealed, will irrevocably alter British society, magical and non-magical.
In her debut novel, Zen Cho creates an alternate London, infused with magic and intrigue during the Regency era which was know for its societal stratification. Going sharply against the grain of most fantasies set in this time period, Cho makes her protagonists a young African man and a young dark-skinned woman whose ancestral origins are eventually revealed. She also includes characters from India and China who are not only indispensable to the plot, but creates a much more believable, and welcome world in which the magic takes place.
Sorcerer to the Crown is, in many ways, very much a comedy of manners and mores, as the characters navigate the treacherous waters of cultural expectations within high society. As Zacharias and Prunella make their way, they see, and begin to question why these restrictions are in place and challenge them when they can, leading to many of the funniest moments in the book. But Cho doesn’t simply stay with what is humorous. She also exposes the darker sides of institutionalized oppression and how it extended to almost anyone who was not rich, male and white. Indeed, some of the novel’s most chilling moments come not from a threat with a magical origin, but when we realize the extremes Society members could, and would, go to protect their own privilege. While this may sound incredibly dark and dismal, the overall tone of the book is anything but. It is light, fresh and, at times, laug- out-loud funny. Sorcerer to the Crown is a wonderful debut and one can not help but wonder where Ms. Cho will take her readers next!