Sorcerer to the Crown: Zen Cho

★★★½

Sorcerer Royal Trilogy: Book I

This was another recommendation from Heloise, and proved to be another delightful piece of escapism. Set in London in an alternate version of the early 19th century, it reads like the love-child of Georgette Heyer and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The story unfolds in familiar territory, among the fine houses of St James’s and Mayfair, with White’s and Almack’s constant presences in the background. However, there are also lesser-known institutions, such as the Theurgist’s club, where frivolous youngsters fritter away their talents, and the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. For this is a London where magic holds sway.

Or at least, it should. The uncomfortable truth is that magic has been declining in England for a long time now and no one is quite sure why. Fewer and fewer magicians are venturing to pay a visit to the court of the Fairy Queen, and there hasn’t been a new familiar in England for half a century. Something is seriously wrong, and Zacharias Wythe is determined to find out what it is. For now the government remain ignorant of their plight, but in these days of war England can ill afford to be unprepared on the magical front – even if they have come to a mutual agreement with their French colleagues to stand aloof. An agreement, unfortunately, vastly more in the English favour than the French, as all London’s thaumaturges know only too well that the sorcières would wipe the floor with them.

Unfortunately, the lack of magic is only one of Zacharias’s problems as the recently-invested Sorcerer Royal, the most senior and powerful magician in the land. His thaumaturgical colleagues regard him as entirely undeserving of the post, first because he’s too young and secondly because he doesn’t come of gentlemanly family (even though he has been sponsored by Sir Stephen and Lady Wythe). But the third reason is worst of all, in their eyes: Zacharias isn’t English at all but African, rescued from a slave ship as a child by Sir Stephen and raised as a son by that eccentric gentleman. For the magicians of London, Zacharias’s appointment to succeed his own adoptive father as Sorcerer Royal is nothing more than nepotism at its very worst… or something even more sinister. For Sir Stephen’s death was suspicious and London gossips are all too ready to believe the worst.

Under these circumstances, Zacharias has several things far more pressing to worry about than giving a speech at a provincial school for gentlewitches. However, it gets him out of London at a convenient time and it will enable him to travel close to the border with Fairy to see if he can figure out what’s stopping magic getting through. His time in the country, however, will only exacerbate his problems and put an entirely new slant on his future ambitions. Not only does Zacharias discover that the flow of magic across the border has been deliberately stopped (with a cork, no less!), he must also contend with assassination attempts, squabbling schoolgirls, a very opinionated Malaysian witch and a young woman called Prunella Gentleman. Prunella is an assistant at the school and is inconvenient in a number of ways. First, she insists on running away with Zacharias despite all his protests to the contrary. Secondly, she is formidably magical, which is most irritating because everyone knows women are too delicate to cope with magic and must therefore avoid it at all costs. And third, although Zacharias only discovers this when he’s already foolishly committed himself to her care, she’s carting around a battered old valise of her father’s, which holds unimaginable, exotic and dangerous treasures.

The book is a charming romp, the kind of novel in which everyone is dreadfully polite and you can tell a great deal about a man from his waistcoat. It places colonial and racial themes at its centre but without being remotely preachy: like Zacharias, it just quietly gets on with its business. And if that makes it sound serious, then don’t be misled. It’s full of vivacity and cleverly interweaves real Regency customs and institutions with the magical. I smiled, for example, when I read that the two main schools in this England are ‘Seaton and Yarrow’. This is a world with great depth and richness, which is perhaps why the book felt too short, despite its near-400 pages. I wanted to spend more time exploring the traditions of Cho’s Society, the nature of the bargains between sorcerers and their familiars, and learning a little more about what magicians in this other London actually do except plot and get drunk in their club. I also wished we’d seen a little bit more of Fairy, although the glimpse we had of it made it look rather comic and not as dark and seductive as it seems in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

It isn’t a perfect book, however, and one of its minor weaknesses is in the use of language. Cho aims at the kind of period language used by O’Brian or Heyer, but in her efforts to avoid all abbreviations, she ends up with some awkward sentence construction. To my ears, it sounds wrong to render ‘Don’t you…?’ as ‘Do not you…?’ rather than ‘Do you not…?’, which may be a tiny thing (I’m a pedant; have I mentioned that?), but it does begin to grate. My other criticism would be about the pace. I was very happy with the momentum of the first two thirds, which allowed us to find out a bit about this world as we travelled through it with the characters, but everything changes in the final part. Spoilers follow, of course. This last section just erupts into a magical frenzy, more chaotic than dramatic, as if Cho just threw everything she had at the page. It was like the moment in an action movie where you haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on and you just have to sit out the explosions and fighting and crazy camera angles, and hope it all makes sense at some point. Amid the chaos, things happened that left me entirely baffled. Why were none of the characters either surprised or bothered by the sudden revelation that Rollo was in fact a dragon? Did everyone know he wasn’t human? I hadn’t the faintest idea. It felt rather odd to just throw in a fairly major plot point like that in the background.

However, for the most part I found this book thoroughly enjoyable. I think issues with the pacing may reflect the need to get everything set up for the next book in the trilogy, where hopefully things will settle down a bit and we’ll get to savour more of this half-familiar world. I applaud Cho for bringing together so many different traditions into one magical world: not just the predictable fairies, but also the myths and legends of her native Malaysia, oriental lamiae and Chinese magic. And her characterisation is strong too: in Zacharias and Prunella she has created two very engaging protagonists, both determined in their different ways and, by the end of the book, in a good place. I’m certainly going to be looking out for the next volume in the trilogy. In the meantime, I snaffled her Perilous Life of Jade Yeo from Amazon, so expect more Malaysian speculative fiction very soon.

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3 thoughts on “Sorcerer to the Crown: Zen Cho

  1. Melita says:

    I managed somewhere between 30 and 40 percent and gave up when something shinier came along. I didn’t dislike it, but hadn’t gotten enough attached to either a character or the setting to keep going. I may try reading it again.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      There do seem to be mixed opinions, it’s true. I was surprised by how few reviewers have really loved it. Interesting to see that you had trouble with the beginning, because I’d have been quite happy if things had continued at that pace and if the book had been more of a character piece. What were your feelings on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? I suspect those who like one would like the other, but perhaps aficionados of Susanna Clark would find Cho’s setting *too* similar?

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    You’re pretty much summing up my own impression of Sorcerer to the Crown – it was fun, but flawed and the ending did come across as somewhat rushed,and overall it did not quite live up to the promise of her story collection Spirits Abroad. I’m putting it down to Zen Cho still struggling with the novel form, and am quite confident that the second volume of the trilogy will be better balanced and possibly even more fun than this first. 😉

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