Mentioned previously in my two-years in review of fictional literature.
Since I didn´t want to withhold this review from the author after announcing it to her as early as March 2017, here´s the English version of the previous review.
One really grabs a real tresure from time to time, looking around in one´s book-store. Admittedly, I am not completely immune to aesthetic visual stimuli, which is why the book´s cover caught my attention at first. It called me. When compared to the american cover, it´s less bombastic, and it shows definetely more humorous aspects than the british cover. But I better don´t let myself get lost in describing the fascinating ornated silhouettes – it´s the content that counts here.
The author is of malaysian origin. She lives and works as an attorney in Great-Britain. Her creative work is strongly inluenced by her cultural background and being herself part of a minority in Great-Britain, she knows about the importance of visibility in the media.
What is to be expected?
Britain. It´s the beginning of the 19th century – in the text, a strong Napoleon Bonaparte is mentioned as an enemy which can be a strong argument fort he plot taking place before the disastrous Russian or Moscow campaign. Magic is decreasing, a disturbing circumstance for the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and especially for Sorcerer Royal of a few hours´ standing Zacharias Wythe – the worst time imaginable for being asked for magical help in his struggle with witches and lamias by the sultan of far away Janda Baik. Due to his origin – being freed from slavery by former Sorcerer Royal and his foster father Sir Stephen Wythe – and the mysterious circumstances attending his election, Zacharias´ position is weak. In an attempt to strengthen his position and to fathom the reason for magic´s decrease – and to resolve that problem, if applicable – he leaves for Fobdown Purlieu, a place with contact to the borders of Fairyland.
Fate has humour, and since his acquaintance Rollo Threlfall is too shy to speak in front of young women, Zacharias agrees to taking over Rollo´s speech at Fobdown Purlieu´s school for young noble witches in order to cover up his true intention for the journey. Shocked by the methods taught to the young witches which are meant to oppress their magic – for women, it´s illegal to use magic, a fact that´s often „forgotten“ if the user is a servant – Zacharias plans a legal reformation. The more so as he becomes aware oft he potential oft he school´s servant, Prunella Gentleman. The young lady soon follows Zacharias to London on the pretext of becoming his pupil and magician at the Society. Her true goal is to find a profitable husband – despite her being of foreign descent – and thus the financial background to establish a school for witches.
The very same evening, someone starts the first in many attempts to take Zacharias´ life. And to make things even more complicated, the second party in the conflict on Janda Baik, the witch Mak Genggang, demands to speak to the King. And there are still some unanswered questions. The most pestering being the reason for the disruption of the magical stream to Britain. What mysteries have grown up around Sir Stephen´s death? And what heritage is hidden inside the bag Prunella´s father left for her?
After positively devouring „Sorcerer to the Crown“ I want to share what fascinated me about it – except for a tiny plothole concerning the content of Prunella´s singing orb and the POV-changes that change quite fast and without any interruption which one needs to get used to.
1) Language. The style remembers the time the story takes place. It hasn´t been compared to the work of Jane Austen for nothing. Its humour and poshness have a flavor of their own. It´s fun to imagine smug british aristocrats and Prunella´s provoking and confident character. The life of Cho´s characters can be felt in each sentence. In addition to that, I love evocative names.
2) Everything overlaps. Each thread in the plot is part of one huge ravel and there remain no loose ends.
3) The world. It takes some time to reference the time (regency period) or to understand this worlds hierarchies, but the author´s approach to magic itself and to the non-human creatures is an easy one since she works with familiar elements. Fairyland for example is ruled by capricious Oberon and Titania who´s fond of travelling. There´s no peripatetic info dump, instead the author lets her readers feel that the world is older as what´s read on paper. This passage might illustrate that – and explains why women aren´t allowed to use magic at the same time:
„The girls were given a serviceable education in thaumaturgical history, which contained so many instructive examples of the unfortunate consequences of women’s practising magic: Queen Mary’s horrific blood magics among them, and the outbreak of untrammelled witchery that had caused such chaos in the Middle Ages.“
In her first novel, Zen Cho draws a detailed picture of a society that takes much for certain and that´s fraught with melancholia, a stagnant society that has yet to understand that it needs to move a step forward.
4) Both protagonists sexuality in a world that knows insinuations to anything sexual at best. It seems tob e a contradiction at first. But…
In her answer to my first mail to her, the author mentions that the way sex and sexuality were mostly hidden from sight in her novel was modelled after the „Regency romances“ or „novels of manners“ she had in mind when creating the story. Thus, Mrs Cho didn´t waste any thought neither about Zacharias´ nor Prunella´s sexuality. Some parts of the text made me wonder, though …
“I can see I have surprised you,” said Zacharias. He hesitated. “Perhaps it would have been better to have given you some warning—to have built up to it. Courtship is not an area in which I can boast any expertise, however. My work, my experiences—indeed, my inclinations—have been such as to put it out of my power to make a proper study of the practise.”
„Inclinations“, if it was discrete, could as well be simple paraphrasing of his taste in women. To me, it confirmed what I already suspected.
To Zacharias, neither Prunella nor any other woman is an object of lust; he doesn´t imagine their bodies but is attracted to their personality. Though he is aware of Prunella being beautiful, he seems to be more impressed by her character and potential.
With Prunella, things are more complicated. Every thought about a potential marriage is completely rational in nature; to her, a man is just a means to an end. She desires to participate in social life and imagines herself as founder of a school for witches – both things she can only hope for with the financial help of a husband. She may have a sense for (aesthetic?) attractiveness, but despite other young women her age she´s not losing her head over it.
Not that she gave a fig what the Sorcerer Royal thought. Only it was provoking to have looked so bedraggled before such a very handsome young gentleman. (Prunella saw now what had lent Henrietta such fire in arguing her cause against Clarissa’s. A single dinner party would quite suffice to make any susceptible young lady fall desperately in love with a gentleman as beautiful and melancholy as Mr. Wythe.)
“Bother those attics!” she said.
But in a moment Prunella had forgotten all about Mr. Wythe, for her own words reminded her of the attic she had been cleaning.
None of them attaches importance to being „courtshipped“ or „conquered“. Though Prunella takes advantage of her looks to reach her goal, but not because she liked the attention itself.
She was a protégé after Damerell’s own heart. Prunella took to the ballrooms of London in the spirit of ruthless calculation of a general entering a battlefield. Within a week she had marked out the Lady Jerseys and Countess Esterházys of the world, who wielded the most influence among the ton, and she laid herself out to please them. She took no notice of the numerous gentlemen who promptly lost their hearts to her.
“I shall not soon stop being pretty and saucy,” she explained, “so I need not worry about losing the interest of the gentlemen. But I must have the good opinion of the women, for their word is all the capital I have, and I am lost if they take it into their heads to disapprove of me.”
To prevent me from fishing in troubled waters, I decided to contact the author and present my guesses to her. With her approval, I am going to quote the important part of her answer to me:
Regarding Zacharias and Prunella’s sexualities, I confess it didn’t occur to me to conceptualise them as asexual while I was writing. The restraint when it comes to sexual matters that you can see in the text is, as you say, not really a feature of the historical period and society. I would say it was more because the book’s heavily inspired by Regency romances, like those by Georgette Heyer, which — because they were published, perhaps, in a less permissive time — tend to pretend sex doesn’t exist.
That said, I’m really delighted that you identified with them as potential asexual representation, and I definitely think the book can read to support that interpretation. I agree it’s super important for people across the spectrum of sexual orientations and other axes of identity to be represented in a full, human way. I’m really grateful for any way that Sorcerer to the Crown can contribute to that, including ways I might not have intended. (Anyway, there’s a lot a writer doesn’t know about their own work — a lot of it comes from the subconscious, so for me at least the writing of a story is always partly out of my control.)
[Extract of her mail from March 9th, 2017, 11:28 p.m.]
Despite not officially confirming my Interpretation, Mrs Cho didn´t protest against it either and even embraces it.
What are your thoughts on this?
(UK) Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown. Pan MacMillan 2015. 384 pages. ISBN 978-1-4472-9948-6 / 978-1-4472-9946-2.
(US) Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown. Ace Books 2015. 371 pages. ISBN 978-0-4252-8337-0.