Do you ever read a Georgette Heyer novel and think, “Man, that was great but I wish it had magic and also, like, maybe some diversity in the main characters”? If so, do I have a book for you!
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is the first book in a series of the same name. It’s half Regency romance, half political intrigue, and half biting commentary on British colonialism. (Yes, I know that’s more than two halves. Shhhhh. You don’t come to me for math.)
The book is set in an alternate England that draws magic from its border with Fairyland. In addition to using their own magic, humans can form bonds with fae creatures known as ‘familiars’ to become powerful sorcerers. However, power-hungry British magicians have exploited and kidnapped so many familiars that the Queen of Fairyland sealed the border against them. Without access to Fairy, England’s magic is fading, fast.
The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (AKA thaumaturges, AKA upper-class White dudes with magic) is scrambling to find out what’s going on and keep the loss of their magic a secret. They’re also reeling from the sudden and mysterious death of their leader, the Sorcerer Royal. Meanwhile, the small but strategically important island nation of Janda Baik wants the Society’s help crushing an uprising of vampire women led by the witch Mak Genggang.
And on top of that, the London Season is about to start.
The poor sucker who’s supposed to clean up all these messes is Zacharias Wythe, the new Sorcerer Royal. Technically, Zacharias is the leader of all British magicians, but in practice his position is extremely tenuous. First of all, he’s not of aristocratic birth. Second of all, he’s Black. The previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, bought him as a slave and taught him magic as a sort of social experiment. (Spoiler: We are not Team Sir Stephen in this house.) When Sir Stephen died, Zacharias was the only one able to use his staff, and therefore took over his job.
This has gone over just as well as you would expect it to in White Regency society.
Note: Please be aware that there is period-typical racist language used to refer to both his and other characters’ ethnicity, as well as descriptions of racist behavior. It’s not accompanied by violence or used for shock value, but it is present.
During a trip to investigate the loss of magic, Zacharias meets Prunella Gentleman, an orphan with a mysterious past, a lot of magical talent, and absolutely no moral scruples whatsoever. After she saves him from a magical assassination attempt, he reluctantly agrees to bring her back to London and use his influence to help her learn magic … and find a husband, of course.
The dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella is very much ‘opposites attract.’ Zacharias is
a precious cinnamon bun a thoughtful man with a strong sense of ethics. He’s constantly aware of how unstable his social position is and how little it would take to bring it crashing down. As a result, he’s proper and polite to a fault. (So many people get away with saying terrible things to him that when he finally snapped back at someone, I cheered.) Like many gifted former children, he’s desperate to do everything right, even though he knows that he’ll never be able to do enough to satisfy those who hate him. Over the course of the book, he has to learn to give up his rigid adherence to duty before it quite literally devours him alive.
Meanwhile, at first glance, Prunella appears to be your typical plucky Regency foundling. She’s smart and determined, but impulsive enough to get into all kinds of plot-related hijinx. However, on a closer read it becomes clear that she’s actually a ruthlessly competent manipulator: think Kitty Charing from Cotillion meets Machiavelli, but with magic. She doesn’t care about duty or morality, just about her own self-interest.
I was on board with this at first, because it was fun to watch her run rings around all the other characters. It was also fun to watch her slowly learn to care for Zacharias and value his well-being as much as her own. However, what she ultimately did to protect him was shocking and objectively awful.
She trades his life for the life of her familiar, a being who swore obedience to her and was for all intents and purposes her child. It’s premeditated and cold-blooded. She’s sad about it, but never shows any remorse or faces any negative consequences.
The book took a hard left turn at that point, and as a romance, it never got back on track for me. I couldn’t forgive her and I didn’t care if she got a happy ending.
Fortunately for my enjoyment of the book, there are plenty of other characters to root for. My personal favorite is Mak Genggang, who reminds me very strongly of my other favorite fictional witch, Granny Weatherwax:
“I desire to speak to your King,” said Mak Genggang. “You had best bring me to him straightaway — and no dillydallying, if you please, for the fate of the nation depends upon it!”
“Good gracious,” said Prunella, staring. “But what dreadful thing is it that is going to befall us?”
“I have befallen you,” said Mak Genggang.
Two words: Power. Move.
Other than Mak, my favorite thing about the book was its tone. It’s a spot-on riff on a Heyer-style comedy of manners, while remaining explicitly aware of the foundation of conquest and colonialism upon which Regency wealth was based. England’s past relationship with Fairyland, and its current one with Janda Baik, both mirror the ways in which the British Empire exploited resources all over the globe. Given that Zen Cho is from Malaysia, a former British colony, this strikes me as extremely intentional. It’s also very smoothly executed. On the first read, I thought of the story as a light-hearted romp, and it wasn’t until I went back to read it again that I fully absorbed the depth of the themes.
The impact of conquest is also played out personally in the lives of the heroes. Zacharias is Black, and Prunella is half-Indian. Both of them were taken from their parents (Zacharias via slavery, Prunella through being orphaned) and raised by people who profited from their labor while expecting gratitude in return. Though neither of them were abused by their caregivers, it’s also clear that they were never treated as family. Throughout the story, in various ways, they have to come to terms with what that means and what (if any) duty they have to fulfill others’ expectations of them.
While this one ended up being tough to swallow for me on the romance front, I’d still recommend it overall. The in-jokes are delightful, it pays homage to tropes while subverting them, and it’s just a really fun world to hang out in. I have a soft spot for Regencies and an even bigger one for fae nonsense, and this satisfied both at the same time.
(ps. Also there were dragons. As we have established, books with dragons are automatically better than books without dragons. Dragon content rating: minimal but hilarious. 7/10.)