Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho’s debut novel. It’s perhaps best described as magic-and-manners,  sitting somewhere on the literary spectrum of Jane Austen and Susanna Clarke. It’s also rather good.

The setting is Regency England – easily recognisable to anyone who had to read Pride and Prejudice at school. Filled with supercilious aristocrats, put-upon servants, elaborate entertainments, and even more elaborate language. But it’s a version of this England that we perhaps haven’t seen before. A version where there is a highly visible, if somewhat dysfunctional, society of magicians. Where the position of Sorcerer Royal comes with both privileges and assassination attempts.  It’s a credit to Cho’s skill as an author that she manages to merge the cut-throat world of aristocratic parties and struggles to find a suitable husband, with the more literally cut-throat world of high-octane magic.
It’s a very well realised world that Cho has drawn, and one which is instantly believable. Drawing on the tradition of mannered romances, even the tone of the prose feels appropriate to the genre conventions, lending authenticity to those parts of the narrative that seek to both subvert and conform to those conventions. The text feels slightly baroque, but not overwhelming, and the flow of both dialogue and description is suitably liquid – flowing easily through the reader, and asking them to just turn one more page. The descriptions, of London, of courtly ballrooms, of thaumaturgy – all have a matter-of-fact authenticity to them, wrapped within some nicely elaborate prose. 

The flow of the dialogue, in particular, is a joy – carrying the impression of a 19th century novel, but with a streamlined feel, making it a pleasant and intriguing read. It’s worth noting whilst discussing the prose,  that this is one of the most slyly witty books I’ve picked up in years. There’s an undercurrent of dry humour which runs through the text, and it often has the capacity to surprise and amuse simultaneously. I chuckled often, and laughed aloud several times. Whilst this is a text which does treat with complex themes and issues, it’s also one which does not do so in too po-faced a fashion; the narrative invites the reader to share the joke, rather than taking itself too seriously.

Our view into this world is split between two central characters. There’s the current Sorcerer Royal, the wonderfully named Zacharias Wythe, a man discriminated against by his own society both for his race and for his mysterious means of ascension to his position. There’s also (the equally splendidly named) Prunella Gentleman, who begins the tale in the confines of a school for magically inclined women. It exists in order to teach gentlewomen how not to exercise their magic – for reasons of propriety, of course. Both characters are artfully portrayed. Wythe has a certain nervous energy about him, and an occasional grim intensity which indicates a character with drive, focus, and determination. As the narrative progresses, we learn more about Stephen’s past, and how he ended up in the position he’s in. By contrast, Prunella is no less driven – in fact, perhaps more so. She’s vivacious, focused, perhaps slightly unscrupulous, occasionally ruthless, and utterly charming. 

The central relationship is between these two, as they rebound off of each other whilst dealing with the travails affecting English magic – and the author has managed to create a marvellous understated chemistry, both entirely believable and incredibly compulsive. There’s also a galaxy of supporting cast, ranging from wry colleagues of Wythe’s through put-upon schoolteachers to mysterious villains and the occasional Faerie. Some of the latter feel extremely strange, but perfectly real – and the supporting cast of thaumaturges and government officials feel no less than human.

The plot begins with Wythe’s investigations into a sudden decline in the amount of available magic in England, and Prunella’s efforts to make a name for herself  – but quickly spirals out to include a great many other opportunities for chaos. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, except that each step on the journey with the pair of them is thoroughly enjoyable, and the eventual dénouement is both thoroughly fantastical and impressively human.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. Warm, clever prose, filled with believable, charming characters in a compelling narrative. This one is definitely worth picking up.

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