Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Books: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho


Time on to-read list: 3-4 months

Reason for being on to-read: Regency? Magic? Come on, people, this is my wheelhouse.

Reason for not picking up: You ever had one of those books people were too enthusiastic about? You were just sure it couldn’t live up to the hype? Yeah, that was this book for me.

Reason for finally reading: People have been telling me about this book for months. It’s name has been cropping up all over the place. I like to talk at the internet water-cooler, too.

Verdict: I am a cynical fool. I should trust my book people more.

Man, I hope the writer of this book was cackling as she wrote this. That’s how I pictured her, especially as the book wore on, just sitting there, rubbing her hands and laughing as she typed, going, “Ooooh, I know what I’ll do to them now!” I mean, that’s what I would have been doing as I wrote this. I don’t know if I could have restrained myself, because I would have been very pleased with just how clever I was. Maybe she could restrain herself, because doubtless she is less shocked about how great she is- I don’t know. But anyway, I hope that gives you an idea of the spirit of the thing, because that’s the best part of it.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure about this one when I started. The tone seemed forced, like someone who had studied a great deal of Jane Austen and read a lot of Regency romances and was painstakingly trying to recreate the sentence structure, with the result that her characters sounded a good deal more wooden than they should (even the excellent concept of  a protagonist- Zacharias Wythe, the somewhat hapless, well meaning Sorcerer Royal the book focuses on). And then of course, there was all the exposition to get set up and getting our protagonists, heretofore with no reason to be anywhere near each other, together. That part was okay- I kept going more for the concept than anything else- magic is commonplace in England, there’s a whole long standing structure of magicians and familiars in place, it’s tied up with politics and acknowledged as A Thing, but very much tied into an otherwise recognizable Regency society that can’t be bothered to be that impressed (too busy being impressed with the knots in their cravats, obviously). You guys know that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite books, right? I couldn’t love this concept more. I was going to stick around until the end (especially since it was clearly going to deal with some racial and class issues that simmered under the surface in that one in a more blatant way, and there were some cleverly placed unanswered mystery breadcrumbs placed out early on- well done, Cho.)

But then I hit what my kindle told me was about 40%. Remember how I told you guys reading JS&MN and losing patience to just hang out for Strange? Same damn thing here. Then Strange showed up and things got amazing pretty quickly and never got less amazing until the last page. I laughed out loud once, then twice, and then traded gasping and laughing for a sustained period pretty much almost until the end.

Okay, so basic plot: Zacharias Wythe is the Sorcerer Royal, like I told you above- but he inherited his position from his mentor and father figure, Sir Stephen Wythe, in suspicious circumstances that were never quite explained. He is clearly the most powerful magician living, so, as yet, he still holds the staff of office- but there is a louder and louder rebellion stirring amongst England’s magicians about his leadership (not helped, of course, by the fact that this is the early 1800s and Zacharias is of African birth and appearance and some Englishmen don’t like acknowledging that any “foreigner” can do anything better than they can- hey- actually, maybe this isn’t just because it’s the early 1800s. Ringing some bells). This situation is only made more precarious by the fact that England seems to be in the process of losing the plentiful magic it once had, and has been for decades. No new magical creatures or familiars have appeared, and the borders to Fairy have been slowly, but inexorably closing.

Enter Prunella Gentleman, aka my new fictional best friend. She works at a magical school for young ladies where they are mostly taught to hide their gifts and pretend like magic doesn’t exist (think of it like one of those boarding schools where rich people send embarrassing daughters who get pregnant young or show signs of mental health difficulties). She has lead a precarious life on the sufferance of someone who took her in- but then, early in the novel, she makes a discovery that changes her entire life and throws her in the path of Zacharias- leading to life-altering consequences for both of them. The surprise is so good and her course of action is so audacious and amazing I don’t want to even hint at it, but suffice it to say that it leads to them making an amazing team in more ways than one.

Aside from the wonderful plot and an outstanding cast of supporting characters in the best Regency farce fashion, (Rollo! Damerell! Aunt Georgiana!) what’s really wonderful in the back half of the book is Cho’s increased confidence and ability to handle the tone, dialogue and rhythms of the genres that she’s paying homage to- both Regency farce and epic fantasy.  She really does a great job with ramping up the ridiculousness to just the right volume, while never quite forgetting the serious threats that underlie all of this conflict.

(BTW-Man, I hope this book is an indication that this mixed genre is here to stay. Can I just make up one of these cool new subgenre names for it to help marketers? “Bonnet fantasy”? “Carriage-wheels-and-magic-wands fantasy”? Hmmmm. Come on guys, we have to be able to come up with something to encourage people to do this more.)

Not to mention the serious girl power in this book. Prunella, my new BFF, is, as I mentioned, utterly fantastic, and I love the way the author goes about showing that to us. She never needs her to be admired and stared at as the belle of the ball (at least not more than briefly, before something goes terribly wrong), she doesn’t need her to necessarily be Mary Sue. She just needs her to be determined, clever, to know what she wants and not be afraid of stating it (whether it’s “feminine” or “feminist” or not), and of course to be a whole lot of fun. Although Zacharias is our ostensible hero, and so much of the book is from his point of view- and he really does a great job of playing the straight man and the tragic hero we want out of our epic fantasies, Prunella is really the true farcical heart of the novel- she gives it life and insanity and the heart palpitations we want out of an adventure. I told you guys, she’s Strange- but way funnier, more self-aware, but just as ferocious when she needs to be. There’s some pitiless stuff in here, and she’s nobody’s perfect heroine, and man, does she screw up, but it’s enjoyable from beginning to end.

I was never  more delighted than when I saw, in parentheses after the title, that this was only Sorcerer Royal #1- which hopefully means there’s more to come. I don’t think it’s spoiler-y of me to say that I want to see how Prunella continues her reign of terror and mayhem in the next book and who she shocks to their core next.

I am sorry I was ever wary of this, anyone who ever recommended this to me! More fool I, please be as smug as you like! You deserve it.