Well, this was charming! The first time I read Zen Cho (The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo), my main gripe was that the story was too short, that the scenes didn’t have enough time to unfold, that danger was averted too quickly and too easily. Well, Zen Cho has now produced a novel that has none of those problems, but delivers a huge dose of charm and humor.
Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 416 pages
Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: The meeting of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty.
The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…
Zen Cho has her language down. Open up Sorcerer to the Crown and you will feel like you fell into a Jane Austen novel. Except there’s magic, and sorcerers, and social commentary. For the first few chapters, I was reminded very much of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but this would be a much more lighthearted version, a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This lightheartedness is at the same time strength and weakness of the story.
Zacharias Wythe has just become Sorcerer Royal and with that role inherited a number of problems, only some of which can be traced back to people’s prejudice about his skin color. Less and less magic is in the air for magicians to use, ambitious gentlemen wish to gain Zacharias’ position for themselves, he has to hold a speech at a young ladies’ school for (or rather for the suppression of) magic, and he caught a small case of making a bargain with the Fair Folk – which is never a good idea unless you are the fairy.
Enter Prunella Gentleman. What a charming, delightful, practical creature she is! Zacharias may be the protagonist of this book but, honestly, Prunella steals the show on every page. And Zacharias is fine with that, I’m sure. Not only does Prunella actually want to explore her magical talent, despite society (and her school) preaching that women aren’t strong enough to support magical currents, to use magic, and thus must be trained to suppress it entirely. But Prunella just gets it. She understands the society she lives in and she understands her place in it. Naturally her number one goal is to find a wealthy husband – as any Jane Austen heroine will know, this is no laughing matter, for without one, a woman would be quite dependent on her parents or the kindness of strangeres. Prunella wants security, and only then does she have time to pursue her ambitions as a magician. It’s not only her attitude that makes her so wonderful, it’s also her honesty. Reading about Prunella was the best thing!
Zen Cho also does some interesting things with world-building in her alternate England. I loved that Fairyland is a place you can visit and that fairies aren’t cute, but dangerous (if not evil as such, they do like to trick humans). The idea of a sorcerer needing familiars to grant him status and power was interesting, although I believe not done well enough. The same goes for the use of magic. We learn that hedge witches (not respected magicians, of course, but mostly servant women in rich households) use magic to help them do their chores, but what the actual Unnatural Philosophers do is a mystery – which also might be a nod to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell again. There are ghosts, but it’s not clear when somebody turns into a ghost and what exactly the point is. This world is stuffed full of ideas and I can’t help but think that picking only a few of them and focusing a bit more on these would have been a better idea.
Similar things bothered me about the plot. It starts as one thing, introduces Prunella, and instantly turns into another. But with so many side plots, it was difficult to know what the story is supposed to be about. I chose to read for Prunella. Her storyline was a true pleasure, but the rest of the plot suffered for it. Prunella is just too center stage (and that’s a good thing) for me to care much about anything else. Zacharias’ curse is mentioned several times but only becomes revealed at the end. It all meandered a bit and felt overloaded.
Speaking of the end. Predictable as certain aspects were, Zen Cho genuinely surprised me with how she got there. I had some ideas in my head of stuff that just HAD TO HAPPEN and it did happen. But what Prunella and Zacharias have to do to achieve this end was quite original. Damerell, a side character who stole my heart a little, does his part and grows into more than just comic relief. I quite adored the ending, especially considering what it means for the next novel in the series.
So despite the slightly too ambitious approach to the plot, I believe Zen Cho has created a world that is worth revisiting. And if there is more Prunella in the next book, you can definitely count me in. What an utterly, utterly charming character.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good