Sorcerer to the Crown: A Subversive Regency Romp

sorcerer to the crownIn the fantasy genre, the medieval period of European history has always taken center stage. Perhaps it’s the allure of feudal hierarchies that attract so many writers and readers; maybe it’s the undeniable appeal of the bubonic plague or the sheer romanticism of open sewers. More likely it’s the manufactured nostalgia of the twentieth century, which looked backwards into time and discovered that princes made better heroes than plutocrats, and swords in stones were more straightforward systems of kingship than this messy democratic business.

Nineteenth century Britain, though, comes in as a close second in terms of popularity. Steam power and corsets and carriage rides and people whose dialogue has manufactured exclamations in it! Oh! What a sight! (I should note that I’m allowed to make fun of it, because I love it dearly). The popularity of this era is more complex. I like to think part of it’s the sense of swelling, inescapable, world-altering transition permeating the century that gives it such attraction, and the series of dramatic juxtapositions that creates—queens and railroads, arranged marriages and evolutionary theory, all jumbled together.[1]

But it also seems like there are other, less savory motivations behind the veneration of the 19th century, particularly when it’s the white, male, British, upper-class experience of the 19th century that is most often recreated. Once can’t help but feel there are large contingents of readers and writers eager to escape into an imagined past without all these nasty complications about race and gender and class, where the superiority of Anglo characters and the silence of everyone else is a convenient byproduct of the era. Recent works in the genre have absolutely challenged that narrative, that let’s-never-talk-about-imperialism, don’t-worry–about-the-slave-trade, there-are-totally-only-white-dudes-here nonchalance. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books do so slowly, almost timidly, accumulating radicalism as the series progresses, so that even though her protagonist is the picture of an English gentleman, he is plagued by questions of freedom and equality. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is perhaps more direct, with Stephen Black and Lady Pole and Vinculus and Childermass scurrying unseen at the edges of the story, undercutting the singular agency of the magicians themselves.

But none of them—or none that I’ve read—are as ferocious and delightful an attack on exclusivity and racism as Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. It is this cleverness and awareness and bravery that ultimately makes the book so worth reading, and gives surprising depth to what might otherwise feel frivolous.

sorcerer to the crown 2It’s set in Regency London, and follows the intertwining narratives of Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman as they try to save English magic. Zacharias is the newest Sorcerer Royal—and the first African Sorcerer Royal—who is faced with England’s dwindling magic supply. Prunella is a precocious young woman of no means, dubious colonial heritage, and an abundance of magic, who means to climb the social ladder one way or another. Thrown together by convenient plotting, the two discover an evil plot, roam through the Fairy Court, and attend a surprising number of parties.

As far as plotting goes, this one is perfectly serviceable. But I confess to a slightly narrow-eyed intolerance of quite so many hijinks. There are several moments throughout where situations were a bit manufactured, as if a long cane had just slunk out from stage left to prod the actors into position. It also lacked a sense of melodrama, of gravity—I never had a second’s doubt that Prunella and Zacharias and probably England would survive unscathed.[2]

It’s also possible that I just wished it were longer. I’m one of those obnoxious readers (and probably, god save you all, writers) who wants to linger, get to know everyone, pause to stare out at London cityscapes and smell the coalsmoke scum on the Thames. For those of you who are rolling your eyes, well, this is the book for you—there’s literally never a dull moment in Sorcerer to the Crown.

The romantic element (because this is essentially a Georgette Heyer novel, and you bet your poofy pantaloons there’s a romance plot) is perfectly sweet, and conducted with an admirably light hand. I especially enjoyed the shifting power dynamics of their relationship, and the attention given to class and wealth and gender politics and social climbing and all the things that influence and infiltrate love in the real world. It feels surprisingly genuine, even amid the froth and hijinks.

The entire book feels that way—a light and airy romp with a serious, sincere heart. I treasure that sincerity, that thoughtfulness, and it makes Sorcerer to the Crown stand out on the crowded magical-nineteenth-century shelf. Read it.

[1] I also suspect people who write will always be drawn to the nineteenth century, because so many of us heard in our lit classes about how the modern novel—as a profitable item with chapters and prologues and climaxes and resolutions—was invented then. It’s a kind of nerdy, historical tourism, combined with a back-brain assumption that books=nineteenth century.

[2] Although there were actually a couple of twists I didn’t see coming. I can’t talk about them, obviously, but holy smokes, Rollo.

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