Sorcerer to the Crown
Pan Books 2016 (2015)
Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!
This is a fantasy that has frequently been described as a mash-up of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I’ve read) and Jane Austen (ditto) as interpreted by Georgette Heyer (whom I’ve not as yet read) but of course it is more than that. The author brings up issues of race, gender and class in a way that, in 2020, is even more pertinent than when it was first published, what with Black Lives Matter assuming even more urgency and administrations in certain democracies becoming more inclined toward fascist policies.
Yet Zen Cho deals with this not in a heavy-handed preachy way but with wit, humour and satire, all the more effective for being couched in a historical fantasy rather than a sermon. While it’s not perfect, as a debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown has made few missteps; and what’s cleverer is that its apparent obscurities and longueurs actually encourage a future rereading when one may hopefully spot and enjoy the clues one may have missed first time round.
We’re slap bang in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, but Britain’s sorcerers and France’s sorciers have agreed not to intervene in the conflict. Trouble is brewing in the Malay peninsula however between a Sultan and local witches, and the Sultan’s intention to get English sorcerers to intervene risks retaliation from their French counterparts.
In London, meanwhile, Zacharias Wythe has become Sorcerer Royal, thereby eliciting the antagonism of many of his fellow magicians because he is a freed African slave. And in deepest Hampshire, in a school for gentlewitches located in Fobdown Purlieu, orphan Prunella Gentleman is feeling woefully undervalued. When the beleaguered Sorcerer Royal pays a visit to the school the young woman takes her chance to leave, taking with her a valise concealing seven gemstones and a metal orb with strange carvings, all left by her deceased father. But before leaving for London Zacharias has to pay a visit to the borders of Fairyland to discover why the flow of magic into England is drying up.
Trying to further summarise the intricacies of the plotting is futile without giving too much away so I shall allude to rather than expound on details. First, some quibbles: occasionally in playing up the verbosity of individuals involved in conversations the author appears to put the action on hold, while at other times the changed magical nature of characters results in some obscurity for the reader, if not for the protagonists. But in both cases I suspect it’s part and parcel of the writer delighting in mischievous humour: what’s funnier than speechifying while a supernatural battle plays out around you, and what more comically natural than sorcerers taking the sudden appearance of dragons, a tempest-monster or conveyance by cloud completely in their stride?
Zen Cho is Malaysian who, as well as being a fan of Heyer, Clarke and Austen, is a writer of fantasy and a British-trained lawyer: so the unusual combination of courtroom-style loquacity, Regency repartee, Malay folklore, and alertness to the consequences of colonialism (Malaya was under British control until the mid-twentieth century) doesn’t come out of nowhere. She sets her story at a key moment in our own world’s history, before the time that the buying and selling of slaves was made illegal throughout the British Empire (1807), and a few years after the Third Anglo-Mysore War ended in 1792, but still sometime during the period of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
Into an England dominated by a white male ruling class Cho places some of her leading characters, who are neither white, nor male, nor from the Establishment. Not only do we have the son of West Indian slaves, Zacharias, manumitted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, but Prunella herself is the daughter of an Englishman and a mystery woman from Mysore in India, and we mustn’t forget the appearances of Chinese magician Hsiang or of Malayan ‘vampiress’ Mak Genggang, along with various denizens of Fairyland. All have key roles to play against certain malcontents in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers led by Geoffrey Midsomer, who has a beef against anyone who appears different, whether by virtue of colour, class, nationality or gender. Can Zacharias, Prunella and their friends and allies hold out against malignant magical machinations?
Though at times I was confused and blindsided, in the end I thoroughly enjoyed this romp — because romp it is indeed, despite the serious issues it is founded upon. I loved the authentic Regency speech and manners, the unusual mix of magical cultures, the burgeoning Austenesque romance between Prunella and Zacharias which threatened to go awry at the very end. More Austen was evident in the entry to Fairyland being in Hampshire, either in the vicinity of Austen’s residence Chawton, or down in the New Forest at the other end of the county where Dibden Purlieu recalls the novel’s Fobdown Purlieu.
I also savoured the likely parallels between the incident which upset the Malay witches of Janda Baik in the novel with a legend from a little further afield. This concerned the female vampire known as a pontianak in Indonesia. In the late 18th century a sultan drove out a community of such vampires in a region by firing cannonballs at them, as a result of which the settlement he founded was called Pontianak. Zen Cho has appeared to cunningly combine aspects of this Indonesian legend with the more recent Malayan settlement Janda Baik, which can translate as “the good widow”, and somehow link them both with Prunella’s origins and with Lady Maria Wythe, the widow of Zacharias’ benefactor Sir Stephen Wythe.
On such relatively obscure foundations as these Sorcerer to the Crown has been carefully constructed to present the elegant, edifying yet entertaining edifice that we now see. But it’s the contrasting characters of the clever and proactive Prunella and the gentlemanly and cautious Zacharias in which the reader truly invests, and whom we all hope will survive for the second instalment of the trilogy. Can such a strange couple survive their odd partnership?