Sorcerer Royal Series
by Zen Cho
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. Sorcerer to the Crown / 2. The True Queen
Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown came out in September 2015. It was a finalist for a British Fantasy award, and during the same voting cycle from that body the author received the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. I've had the paperback for about a year, and decided it was time to read when I saw a sequel announced for next March. Both Amazon and FantasticFiction identify this as the first book in the Sorcerer Royal series, but I decided not to use that for this page's URL. I won't explain why since it would be a bit of a spoiler. The setting is England during the Regency Era, but it's an alternate world, full of magic and witchcraft. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers chooses the Sorcerer Royal, to be both an advisor to the Crown, and also to direct the research and experiments of the society. It would be more accurate to say the Sorcerer Royal is chosen by a special staff, since only those worthy of the position are able to escape injury or death when holding it. For many years the Sorcerer's Staff is held by Sir Stephen Wythe, whose familiar is the dragon Leofric, which has also been the familiar of several generations of Sorcerers. The prologue introduces us to Zacharias, Sir Stephen's six-year-old apprentice. Eighteen years later, Zacharias succeeds his mentor as the new Sorcerer Royal.
Zacharias didn't want or seek the position. He had been content to be secretary to Sir Stephen, to read, research, and help formulate new spells and potions. The Royal Society didn't want him either, but was forced to accept him since the staff accepted him as its new master. There were several reasons for the Society's objections: first, they were convinced that Zacharias had murdered Sir Stephen; second, that he had also killed Leofric, and a Sorcerer without a familiar was unheard of; lastly, and probably an equally strong objection, Zacharias is a Black man. Sir Stephen had purchased him from his previous owner during a tour of the West Indies when Zacharias was an infant. If it was revealed what he had seen in Zacharias to warrant his interest I missed it. When he is presented to the Society a few years later Zacharias displays natural thaumaturgical talents. Maybe I shouldn't say natural talents, since it seems all the world's magic comes from another realm, Fairyland, which is also the origin of the familiars. Yet the strength of England's magic is waning, with Zacharias determined to discover the cause. Most society members think it is because of the new Sorcerer's crimes, the accusations of which Zacharias refuses to discuss. Sir Stephen could probably put those rumors to rest if he wanted, since his spirit is still around. And Leofric isn't dead.
There is a small village in Hampshire, Fobdown Purlieu, which is very near a border into Fairyland. Zacharias wants to go there, but also wants to keep his investigations secret. Another member of the society is due to speak at a girls school nearby, so Zacharias contrives to replace him. The school is for girls of the upper classes who exhibit magical tendencies. It is accepted that many of the poor use spells to help them with mundane tasks, cooking, cleaning, farming, etc. That is acceptable, even for girls and women, but not so for females of the higher classes. The school actually trains the girls on how to suppress any magical abilities they might have, even though the cooks, maids, and footmen that serve them are allowed their minor spells. That does not suit Prunela Gentleman, who has graduated from being a student to being the headmistress's right hand girl, as well as sometimes teacher of the younger girls. Prunela was left at the school as a child by her father who committed suicide. She is bi-racial, with her mother (whom she has never known) likely from India. She is also a very gifted magicienne, as Zacharias becomes aware during his visit. He had already had thoughts of extending the teaching of magic to women, and sees in Prunela a likely candidate for success.
Since this is set in Regency England it is also written in that style, I assume similar to Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, although I've read neither. Very formal diction, with discussions of customs, comportment, and proper etiquette. Quite a few adjectives and adverbs that are not in common usage today had me checking the dictionary frequently. Certain turns of phrase at first seemed awkward; "Are not we friends?" instead of "Are we not friends?", but if the first two words in the former were combined in a contraction it makes sense. That got me to checking carefully, and it seemed there were no contractions used, then that was negated later by a few used in dialogue, including ain't. Prunela wishes to be part of high society, to eventually marry a man of a certain standing and income, but she is also free-spirited, willing to upset society by revealing her magical nature. Two words were used to describe other people, but I think they apply to Prunela as well: froward (willfully contrary; not easily managed), and prolix (given to speaking or writing at great or tedious length). Zacharias wants to keep their teaching sessions private and secret, and while Prunela understands the necessity many of her actions work in the opposite direction.
It is an alternate world, but real life historical events are incorporated into the narrative. The Napoleonic Wars for one, in which all parties have agreed to abstain from magic on the battlefield. The issue of slavery is addressed of course, along with England's imperialistic actions. It is likely that Prunela's mother had been killed during the siege of Seringapatam, India. England also becomes entangled in other diplomatic problems related to the weakening of their magic. This includes in Malaysia, the author's birthplace, although she currently lives in London. It's a potent mix of the fantastical with a disection of the more mundane ills of society. The arrogance of nationalism, the heirarchy of class, the patriarchy, and racial bigotry. All of it comes together through the strengths of the lead characters. Zacharias and Prunela are both poised to revolutionize magic, revolutionize England, perhaps the world. I'm anxious to follow them on their next adventure.
The True Queen will be published in one month, March 12, 2019, but I got an e-book ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Even though it did not feature Prunela and Zacharias as much as I had hoped, I enjoyed the new characters, and I rate this at least equal to the first book, perhaps a bit higher in some regards. There were times I thought it was predictable, but later revelations proved to be unexpected. The cover says this is a Sorcerer to the Crown novel, as opposed to Sorcerer Royal. I guess that's another good reason to keep the URL of this page as is, even though neither designation really apply anymore. That is because Prunela is now the Sorceress Royal, having inherited the Sorcerer's Staff from Zacharias toward the end of the first book. They have also married, and have embarked on a plan to train more of England's potential magiciennes at their new school, The Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy, named in honor of the late Sir Stephen's wife and Zacharias' foster mother.
The story begins in Janda Baik, Malaysia, which figured into a small part of the plot of the first book, being the home of the witch Mak Genggang, who aided Prunela in becoming the Sorceress. In the real world Janda Baik is a small village to the northeast of Kuala Lumpur, but here it is a small island off the western coast in the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch had colonized Malaya, then portions of the territory were ceded to the British, including the majority of the Malay peninsula and nearby islands. Following a severe storm two girls are found on the beach, with no memories except for their names, Sakti and Muna, and that they are sisters. Mak Genggang takes them into her home, and into her school for witches. Sakti is very headstrong and suspicious of Mak Genggang. She exhibits some magical abilities, but Muna does not. When Sakti discovers she is suffering from an ailment she cannot explain, she suspects Mak placed a curse on her. She convinces Muna to go with her to the British consul's enclave, since he has been amassing a library of Malay magic. When their theft of a spell book is discovered, Mak directs them to travel through a portal in the Unseen Realm, a portion of Fairy, to reach England to consult with the Sorceress Royal, who has been informed of their arrival. Muna makes it to Prunela's academy, but Sakti mysteriously disappears within the Unseen world.
Prunela had thought both girls were witches, but because of her many duties at the academy and the society she doesn't have the time to devote to Muna, thus the newcomer gets a short reprieve from revealing she has no powers. I won't spoil two different things that happen which allow her to exhibit magic, nor will I say why the title of this novel is slightly wrong too. Muna desperately wants to find her sister, with various events transpiring that help her to convince Prunela to allow her to go to Fairy, and she gets support from Henrietta Stapleton, Prunela's best friend and another teacher at the academy. The rest of the story is full of elves, dragons, Fairy Queens, magical amulets, and humans both magical and mundane. The fate of both Fairy and Earth hang in the balance with every action. Muna and Sakti's true natures are discovered, which for a short while I felt was leading towards tragedy. Well, it did, but for someone else, not the sisters. Muna's compassion proved more powerful than Sakti's brash impetuousness. Love may not conquer all, but it certainly helps to smooth out the rough spots. The story ends on a positive note, with a balance of powers and respect between Fairy and Humans established, but I'm sure there's still enough evil lurking around to make a third book just as interesting and exiting. I won't venture a guess where a new story might take us, but I hope Henrietta plays a major part.
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