Hexes, murder and politicking

Regency London street

Zen Cho:
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.

Elephant device on a coin from the Kingdom of Mysore.

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?

Regency London street

29 thoughts on “Hexes, murder and politicking

    1. Thanks so much for being one of those who pointed me towards it, I shall definitely be seeking out her other titles! I’m not sure about my putting its complexities any better than you, but I do admit to on occasion having a devious mind… Anyway, I’ll be glad to see where she takes these ideas over the trilogy.

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    1. I believe yours was one of the reviews that alerted me to Cho’s novel and I can only thank you for it! Prunella herself is not just feisty but rather scary, and — if you’ll pardon the period metaphor — a loose cannon which seems to have not only a will of its own but a knack of landing up in the right place. I can’t help wondering if there’s not a bit of the author in her creation…

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    1. It’s great fun, while quietly making its points in a matter-of-fact way — setting it two centuries ago doesn’t lessen its relevance to today, I think. Interestingly, I’ve been contemplating a post about the pros and cons of allegories and this has helped focus my thoughts about how an entertaining read can still pack a punch.

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  1. You have such an enrapturing flair to your digestion of these works; I’m positively stunned. Especially since in a contemporary realm such as ours in which reviews of literary works are ninety percent GIFs and ten percent valuative speech, which is exactly what one wants upon seeking critical structures around a particular piece of written text.

    I’m sure you are privy to the richness of your words, as (marvelously jocose) alliterations like “malignant magical machinations” do not come accidentally, but I’m very glad to have found you. I’m always on the search for lucubrated webspaces that truly expand my field of view. So, thank you for existing!, which I suppose is the purpose of this comment.

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    1. You’re too kind, João-Maria, but absolutely right about the GIFs and what you characterise well as valuative speech. (And let’s not forget about the proliferation of exclamation marks, which we must now refer to as bangs, which I thought were confined to war zones, hairdressing salons and doors following lovers’ tiffs).

      And thank you for introducing me to ‘lucubrate’, a term I seem somehow to have missed in all my years of unconscious lucubrating and which has now joined my wordhoard, a collection sadly depleted by incipient aphasia and approaching senility.

      Incidentally, if you’ve read any of Zen Cho’s work I’d be interested in what you thought of her writing, especially her evocation of Regency speech patterns.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I must admit that I do not think I’ve ever introduced anyone to the word lucubrate. “Nitid”, I often find, is the word I use people most often comment on, likely because it’s rather sonorifically pleasing. I’m glad, however, to introduce someone as experienced as you to a new word, especially considering we do not share a native language.

        Concerning Zen Cho, I have (tried) to read this very book you’ve reviewed, Sorcerer to the Crown, owning it as an eBook. I wasn’t fond for a variety of reasons, but I generally ascribe them to my particular literary taste, which isn’t concomitant with Ms. Cho’s writing. Her words arrive at my inner ear almost too dull, too mechanical, excessively pollarded, if such makes sense. I’m persuaded by a bit of chaos, since I’m a caustic creator myself.

        Another aspect that provoked quite an itch was her stolid, almost phlegmatic usage of punctuation. Nearly no semicolons, no em dashes, barely any ellipses or any sort of impressive or expressive usage of punctuation. Everything warrants a full stop, and I find that awfully anechoic.

        Now, I’m not a proper speaker of the English language, thus, I cannot truly comment on her evocation of Regency speech, as I’m not wholly privy to its characteristics.

        My thoughts perhaps may not pair well with yours, but in no way did that detract from my enjoyment of your review. Well, if I wanted to hear an echo of my thoughts, why search for a review to begin with?

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        1. Despite being ‘not a proper speaker of the English language’ you have a command of it that surpasses that of many native speakers, so no need to be self-deprecating. As my limited proficiency with French, Italian, Latin and Welsh declines with each passing day I can only marvel at your close acquaintance with the English thesaurus.

          And, if you are missing semicolons, ellipses and the like I have a large store of these which I’ve acquired over many years; just say the word and you can have a lifetime’s subscription to as many as you like — I’ve developed self-replicating ones that will insert themselves wherever and whenever you need them…

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          1. Oh, thank you, that means quite a bit coming from you.

            I also have an absurd supply of semicolons, en dashes and em dashes, and since this is English, a metric tonne of hyphens. I’m glad to have found your blog, I’m sure I will have hyphens of fun here!

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  2. Oh My! (I think I’m correct in not attempting to include an inverted exclamation mark in that opening salvo 😉) I am dumbfounded by trying to make a neat parcel of this book in my head.

    Where does it sit; how do I shelve it? These are rhetorical questions – just examples of what I was thinking as I read your review. It sounds so original and yet draws upon the tried and tested – mixing everything in a huge melting pot! Romp is surely the only word to describe it and I absolutely have to give it a whirl! 😄

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    1. Oh, in response to your rhetorical questions, I think it sits firmly in the fantasy camp — but all this says is that fantasy is not all gossamer fairies or sword & sorcery he-men! Nor is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a good parallel, for despite both being set in the same time slot (with the decline of English magic as an inciting ‘incident’) I’d class the Susanna Clarke more as literary and the Zen Cho more as knowing pastiche with a modern agenda. (I’m not sure that makes any more sense, Sandra!)

      But romp it certainly is and well worth a diverting read, I think!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. When I stayed with a French family in the 60s breakfast always included some sliced buttered baguette with a bowl of chocolat chaud make up of milk and some cheap powdered brand (I forget the name) which was perfect for a boy with a sweet tooth like me. You dunked the bread and drank directly from the bowl, basically a giant teacup with no handle. Then school lessons in the morning followed by a two hour lunch break back at the family flat, each component of the meal served as a separate course with a glass of red vin de table neat or with water. A real culture shock but very pleasurable.

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      1. Hot chocolate is popular in Spain too in the mornings, as long as you have some freshly made churros to dunk. Indulgent! What an experience you had with that family, I bet cheese sandwiches for lunch back home brought you back down to earth

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        1. My French correspondent couldn’t get over that school dinners (including puddings) could be consumed within 13 minutes before it was time for lunchtime football… I then went to uni when we had, not cheese sandwiches, but ploughman’s lunch virtually every day. (NB No ploughmen were harmed in the making of these. In fact no ploughmen in history ever had ploughman’s lunches, as they were apparently first marketed in the 1950s.)

          My own family had a holiday in Spain without me (!!! I think I was on an archaeology dig) and did nothing but rave about churros when they came back. On and on and on.

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