The publisher summary of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho focuses on Zacharias Wythe, who is England’s young Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers. But for me, this imaginative fantasy is as much about the female lead Prunella, as it is about Zacharias. And Cho creates both characters as people of color, which enhances the complexity of the story.
Zacharias was adopted into a proper British family as a baby, when his adoptive father discovered his talents while in the Caribbean. Ultimately his father became Sorcerer to the Crown, and passed the honor to Zacharias upon his death. But racism and classism run strong in the Society of Unnatural Philosophers. And, Zacharias’s right to ascend is questioned. He’s fighting for the position, and also trying to discover why magic is draining from England.
Along the way, he meets Prunella, a teenage orphan who is extraordinarily magical. And I don’t just mean her charming demeanor. Unfortunately for her, women aren’t permitted to do magic. After all, this is the time of Empires and Colonialism. Which means it’s also the time of extensive and blatant misogyny.
Prunella schemes her way into Zacharias’s life because, frankly, that’s her only option. Together they shake up proper society and magical norms in this fantastic romp in an alternate London universe.
I choose fantasy stories when even a mystery / thriller book is too close to reality. Fantasy books also balance the nonfiction on my shelf. And Zen Cho will definitely be a go-to author for me in the future. She takes the realities of 19th century England, and enhances them with magic that bends time, space, and conventions of the day.
At the same time, Zacharias and Prunella are solving mysteries that are very down to earth. People in the Society hate him so much that someone is trying to kill him. Or is it a something? Cho plays all aspects close to the vest, and offers plenty of surprises.
Our main characters are both charming and well-developed. Prunella is born of a British father and South Indian mother. So, she knows a lot about the discrimination Zacharias faces every day. While he may have more financial advantages, she has the magical talent. He just needs to help ground her in some knowledge, so they can quell the evil forces trying to take over London.
What I like the most is the balance that Cho strikes. She has plenty of social commentary—against racism, classism, and ableism. But she doesn’t hit her readers over the head. Instead she weaves these current day realities into the universe she creates. Her characters deal with their situation more magically than today’s people of color can. But it’s a reminder nonetheless.
I recommend this for fantasy readers who prefer a blend of historical fiction, magical fantasy, and social reality.
Pair with Soulless by Gail Carriger, for another strong female lead in magical London. Or with Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw, for a third strong female lead in a more current alternate London with plenty of creatures.