A quick description of it may not sound like it, though. It revolves around the magician Zacharias Wythe as he negotiates his new position as Sorcerer Royal, which, in England, has become more of a political position than a magical one. He has to cater to the needs of the English government by helping them negotiate alliances, navigate the shifting politics of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and make appearances among the hoity-toity London upper crust. Unfortunately for Zacharias, he does not enjoy politics. His position is complicated by the fact that he took over the staff of Sorcerer Royal after the strange and unexplained death of his mentor and guardian, Stephen Wythe. Combined with the fact that Zacharias is a freed black slave, events seem to have conspired against him to make his position challenging, even dangerous.
The three central conflicts unfold, one after the other. England’s magic is draining away due to some unknown cause. England also needs to pacify Janda Baik, an island nation in the Malayasian archipelago, to maintain their foothold in the East against French incursions. To help out their Malaysian ally, Zacharias is asked to remove a contingent of female vampires who have been running amok in Janda Baik. Finally, the female magicians of England have been long ostracized from magical instruction or utility. Most English sorcerers are happy for this situation to continue unchanged, but Zacharias meets a young savant, Prunella. With the help of her inheritance (seven eggs of familiars, a rare and priceless commodity in a world lacking magic), she convinces him that women should be given access to magical education and even position.
As you’ll notice, all three of these problems have to do with England in some way: England’s power, England’s influence, England’s people and magical resources. Sorcerer to the Crown is as much a novel of the mundane realities of politics, national identity, and social institutions such as racism and sexism as it is about fairies, familiars, vampires, and other fantastical beings. But these institutions become villains every bit as frightening as the others. In fact, as Zacharias finds out, these enemies are harder to fight. He has a more difficult time being seen as an equal by the other sorcerers than he does getting out of the many assassination attempts set for him, like sentient flames and sucking puddles of death.
Some of the most disturbing moments in the novel happen in Zacharias’ mind, as he recognizes fundamental attitudes which will never change to accept him. He realizes, as his adopted mother does not, that he is not seen by the eligible young women of London as a potential mate. He is frustrated and hurt when young sorcerers whose careers he has helped are rude and dismissive in public. Prunella, too, recognizes the inequity that keeps her, a talented magician, in the position of governess and housemaid to more privileged young ladies.
So what is fun about Sorcerer to the Crown? Cho’s “fantasy of manners” has the wry wit and sparkling tone of a Regency novel. She lampoons both social mores and social frauds with the deftness of Austen or Dickens. Preening dandies, over-dramatic social-climbers, and backbiting politicians all feel the edge of Cho’s criticism.
The pace is also fun; once it gets rolling, the story moves from event to event at a breakneck pace. I agree with FantasyLiterature reviewer Bill Capossere that, at times, it seemed to move too fast and could have benefited from a few more beats or transition moments. But I always wanted to keep reading, to find out what happened next. In retrospect, I recognize some of the plot holes at the end that Bill references, but in the moment, they didn’t really bother me. I was enjoying it too much, too wrapped up in the fun of it.
To emphasize the lighthearted aspects, though, is not to say that Sorcerer to the Crown lacks a heart. The race, class, and gender struggles that Zacharias and Prunella encounter never feel as though they are there to make this “issue fiction.” They are seamlessly integrated into the characterization and world-building, and their delivery is so heartfelt and realistic that you can’t help but feel angry and sad and hopeless as well.
But to counterbalance the negative emotions are the positive emotions of warmth, love, and affection. Zacharias loves his mentor and guardians, the Wythes, and the friendship (and romance) that develops between him and Prunella is, dare I say, tender. As a sucker for tender, I really enjoyed the way Cho developed their relationship.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a series, and I’m excited to see what happens next. I hope we get to see more Fairyland, more of the world outside of England, and especially more of the four remaining familiar eggs that Prunella inherited.
*Cho's eligibility post for 2015 can be found here and, yes, Sorcerer to the Crown is on it! I'm planning to nominate her for her short story "Monkey King, Faerie Queen" (short fic Hugo nom post coming up ....)
**This review originally appeared at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 3.5 stars.