Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am probably superbly biased in rating this book, because, well, Zen Cho.
I first read one of Zen Cho's works when she submitted to my anthology, Love in Penang. My first reaction was WHO IS THIS PERSON AND WHY HAVE I NOT HEARD OF HER? I have read several of her online works since then, but also, being a picky AND distracted reader, I have yet to get round to her award-winning Spirits Abroad. (I should! I will!) Sorcerer to the Crown ("SC") has been on my radar since then, and... I really couldn't resist this pretty cover. :D
Zen has this knack of fitting very Malaysian/Asian voices into diverse settings, and I was wondering how that would fit into this extremely British sounding book. To be honest, there are times when I think SC is overly upper class British, making it a slightly harder read than necessary.
Zacharias Wythe, England's first African Sorcerer Royal, is having a hard time of it. He has taken up the role out of duty and obligation, but it seems that factions of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers are trying to depose him for performing his duty. Part of this is due to the fractious nature of England's thaumaturges, part of it due to personal ambition to the Staff, most of it is due to plain old racism. Yet Zacharias does the best he can for England; first in trying to restore their supply of magic, and secondly, in trying to avoid magical wars with foreign entities, including the French, the witches of Janda Baik, and the Fairy Court, even if the Government's policies and requests seems to be intent on spurring on the war.
I kind of liked Zacharias - a kind, gentlemanly soul put into a difficult situation. On a magical scale, he doesn't seem to be the best of Sorcerers. It seems like most of his work as the Sorcerer Royal is avoiding the use of magic. In a sense, this puts me a little in mind of Gabriel De Witt as the Chrestomanci (Dianna Wynne Jones).
Prunella Gentleman, on the other hand, reminded me starkly of Sara Crewe in A Little Princess - orphan of unknown origins, taken in by the school; not quite student, nor teacher, nor servant. But Prunella has grand ambitions, as well as a secret treasure, and she has the will to make it happen. And the magic. In a time where gentlewomen are not allowed to practice magic for the fear of the damage it would do to their delicate frames (hah), Prunella is a magic user - and the strongest one that Zacharias has seen so far. In the midst of all his troubles, Prunella poses the most critical. Teaching her magic will definitely get him deposed if he is found out; not teaching her magic might result in disaster for England.
Zen Cho addresses broad themes in SC. In her very choice of protagonists, she raises the issue of race and gender. Zacharias is a manumitted African. His gratitude to Sir Stephen and Lady Maria Wythe, who purchased, manumitted and raised him, giving him opportunities and privileges unknown to any of his race, is tinged with anger and confusion, as well as the unspoken need to constantly prove himself worthy and grateful. Prunella, with her clear brown skin, is often an outsider. But more than that, it is her gender that provides the biggest barrier to her advancement, despite her obvious talents. In Mak Genggang, Zen Cho provides a powerful role model - that a leader need not be white nor male (nor Christian) to be strong - and right. She is the one who provides guidance to Prunella as well as helps put to a stop the impending war between Janda Baik and England.
This has been an extremely long review - but overall, I would say that Sorcerer to the Crown is an extremely brilliant read. In publishing a very English book in England, it would seem that Cho might have forgotten her roots in Malaysia. I am glad to say that this is not the case. What she has done instead is to somehow marry her South East Asian sensibilities and heritage with her current place of residence.
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