Review: Sorcerer To The Crown (Zen Cho)

17 Jan

Sorcerer To The Crown is a difficult book to review.

In all honestly, I was first alerted to its existence by a couple of mentions by various left-leaning bloggers who praised the book for its grasp of social justice and the nuances of race and racism. I was not impressed by the idea and put all thought of the book aside until I saw a copy in the library and noted that Sorcerer To The Crown had also been compared to Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, one of the most impressive fantasy works of the last decade. That was enough to convince me to take the book home and read it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Sorcerer To The Crown borrows heavily from the aforementioned work. The book is set in Regency England (there seems to be a war underway with the French), an England that has a Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and close ties with Fairyland. However, the magic supply is slowly running out as the Fairy Court is blocking its supply, straining England’s dangerously declining magical stores. Zacharias Wythe, the first black Sorcerer Royal is trying to find a solution to the problem, but his enemies are trying to remove him from his post. Visiting a ladies school, he meets ambitious (and mixed-race) orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries …

The book does have its moments, but it also has a number of problems. Zacharias is a likable character – I like him – yet he doesn’t have the presence necessary to lead the Royal Society. He is ineffectual; not because of his race, I hasten to add, but because of his lack of presence. I can see several reasons for his enemies to want to remove him that have nothing to do with his colour – they need Nick Fury, when what they have is a decent man out of his depth. Zacharias himself notes, furthermore, that some people have good reason to distrust him – no one apart from him knows what really happened when the last Sorcerer Royal died. They ask if he murdered his foster-father (he didn’t).

Prunella, by contrast, is a far less likable character. She’s prideful, arrogant, reckless and headstrong, a dangerous combination. She doesn’t read out as a character who is perched permanently on the edge; indeed, she seems to act as though she belongs even though she should be aware that she doesn’t. (She is aware, at times, but her general attitude suggests otherwise.) This wouldn’t have been too bad, but she keeps saving the day despite her lack of knowledge and a striking ruthlessness (and a willingness to commit an act that shocks everyone.) She is, in short, a deeply flawed heroine and the text doesn’t seem aware of it.

The enemies are also a very odd bag. There are some hints of competence at first – an assassination attempt on Zacharias nearly succeeded; it would have, if Prunella hadn’t been there – but they rapidly decline in competence. Zacharias’s enemies turn out to be humdrum opportunists, while the enemies of Britain herself work by appealing to outside help, rather than fighting the evil British Imperialists themselves.

Truthfully, this book misses a few points about both racism and power struggles in the Regency Era, both more nuanced than the author suggests. Race relations in the British Empire were often complex; it was far from uncommon for Indians and even Africans to win respect from the British, particularly the races that fought effective campaigns against Britain. (It was Africa’s bad luck that many Africans were happy to sell their enemies into slavery, both to Westerners and Arabs.) Yes, skin colour would have told against both Zacharias and Prunella, but perhaps not as badly as the author supposed. (Particularly as Prunella’s ‘coming out’ seems to work fairly well, despite her tinted skin.) The world the author creates, furthermore, has magic in hands that are clearly non-western (the Chinese magician, in particular.) This would have had a major effect on race relations.

(In addition, the main oppressors of women in the novel (and Zacharias notes this, to his credit) are other women. This is actually quite common in real life – societies like Regency England birthed men who thought of women as children (at best) but also women who enforced the oppressive social order. Young women who stepped out of line were often marginalised because their mere existence undermined the power of older women. Prunella does not seem to realise this, even though she should.)

A second point is that power struggles within the elite (which includes Zacharias) were often genteel exercises in backstabbing. There might well be a great deal of respect between politicians who were on opposite sides, but that didn’t stop the different sides from struggling for supremacy. Given Zacharias’s weaknesses as Sorcerer Royal, discussed above, the colour of his skin may not have played a particularly large role in his unpopularity. Rather like President Obama, there are plenty of good reasons to feel he’s the wrong man for the job that have nothing to do with racism.

Overall, the book has many interesting moments. But in trying too hard to make points about racism, sexism and suchlike – and resting too much on a deeply unlikable character – it undermines the story itself.

Three out of five.

5 Responses to “Review: Sorcerer To The Crown (Zen Cho)”

  1. georgephillies January 18, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    Women backstabbing. Consider the outcome for President Andrew Jackson’s wife.

    Interesting review.

    • peterrhodan January 22, 2016 at 4:01 am #

      I find it interesting the number of people who rave about the Norell and Strange book which I found almost unreadable.

      • chrishanger January 23, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

        Everyone has different tastes .

        Personally, i found it very clever.



  1. Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms | The Chrishanger - March 13, 2016

    […] Sorcerer To The Crown, which I reviewed earlier, I first heard of it being mentioned by the social justice crowd, which […]

  2. Guest Editorial: A Character Who Happens to be Black - Amazing Stories - September 2, 2017

    […] Sorcerer Royal. On one hand, many of his enemies dislike him because of his skin; on the other, as I noted in my review, Zacharias is a decent man who’s out of his depth and there are plenty of reasons to want to […]

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