I finally finished Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown a week ago. It took me a long time to get through the winner of the British Fantasy Awards’ Best Newcomer. I’m not sure why–the book is fabulous. The characters are well-drawn, the magic system is intriguing, and the writing is impeccable. But the book is dense. Like A Natural History of Dragons (which I just reviewed here), Cho sets a high bar.
In A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan’s worldbuilding is the detailed part; for Cho it’s her language. Zacharias, Prunella, and other characters talk just like you’d expect a 20th century character to speak, with plenty of “shalls” and repressed emotions. To me that’s a perk, but read on to see if you need to add this book to your wish list.
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt
Passes the Bechdel test = 2/2 pts
Yes, between female characters and between nonwhite characters, not for LGBT characters.
Features a woman as a main character = 3/3 pts
Prunella is a main character and many other women characters are heavily featured.
Artistic and/or entertaining = 4/4 pts
Sorcerer to the Crown follows two characters in an alternate 1900’s England, Zacharias and Prunella. Zacharias Wythe is Sorcerer Royal, the most powerful magic-wielder in Britain–but though he holds the staff, his position is constantly questioned by his peers because of his African heritage. Zacharias was born a slave but taken in at a young age by Lord Stephen Wythe, a white British man. Now an adult, poor Zacharias is constantly villainized by his white peers. He must deal with this racism while handling the other problems of his position, most notably investigating the decline in England’s magic.
Prunella crosses paths with Zacharias at a school for girls with magic (the “school” actually teaches girls to repress their magical abilities, since is not thought proper for women to practice magic). Prunella, though decidedly magical, is not a student at the school. Her white British father died penniless, leaving her with no inheritance and no clue who her foreign (read: non-white) mother is. The headmistress of the school took her in, but she is more of a servant than daughter to the headmistress. One night, the discovery of a case left behind by her deceased father sets her on her on a path to a new destiny.
Like I said above, the writing style is dense, so prepare yourself for that. The narration is just about as roundabout as the characters, so even action scenes are written in couched language. The book is lighter on action in general, focusing quite a bit on court intrigue and Zacharias’ search to solve the England’s magical decline.
I really liked how this style helped me get to know the characters really well. Even though the book took me a little while to get through, I felt totally immersed while reading.
Above and Beyond the General Media = 5/5 pts
Sorcerer to the Crown easily passes this section. The nice thing about setting the story in an alternate magical England is that the discrimination felt by Prunella and Zacharias is not metaphorical. They are racial minorities in both our real Western countries and in their magical parallel world, which makes their experiences that much richer. Nor do Zacharias and Prunella respond in the same way. They each take their lot in life differently, and throughout the course of the book help each other perceive their situations differently.
The other aspect of this novel I really liked was the approach to Prunella’s characterization. When we think of “unlikable female characters” someone like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl might come to mind. In Prunella, we have a different interpretation. Unlike, say, a villainess you love to hate, Prunella makes difficult sacrifices in difficult situations, so you can empathize with–or be disgusted by–her choices, depending on your opinion. By the end of the book, Prunella can easily be described as “ruthless” but she’s still a “good” character. A character complex enough that we can root for her while not necessarily making the choices she makes. I loved this complexity pulled off so well Cho not just in Prunella but multiple female characters.
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