RogerBW's Blog

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho 24 December 2015

2015 Regency fantasy, first of a planned trilogy. "Zacharias Wythe, England's first African Sorcerer Royal, is contending with attempts to depose him, rumours that he murdered his predecessor, and an alarming decline in England's magical stocks. But his troubles are multiplied when he encounters runaway orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon English magic's greatest discovery in centuries."

This is clearly (and admittedly) in part a reaction to the Regency novels of writers like Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, where people are described as "dark" when they're clearly of Anglo-Saxon extraction and actual nonwhite people are essentially invisible. Zacharias is a black African, Prunella is distinctly dusky, and both of them suffer for it repeatedly because Racism Is Bad M'kay. Yes, I suppose this is a story that still needs to be told, but I could have done with a bit more nuance and a bit less Message. There is some nuance, though, and it comes from the protagonists' differing reactions to the prejudice they meet: Zacharias suffers but puts up with it, while Prunella simply ignores anything that doesn't suit her.

That's not even all the prejudice, because it is generally known that while women can be witches they are entirely unsuited to the practice of real magic, and indeed there are schools which exist to train it out of them:

At seventeen Henrietta was as good as out, and really too old for the school, but she had been sent back for another term by her mamma, who fretted about her continuing tendency to levitate in her sleep.

Prunella of course has a talent for magic, and Zacharias, having visited the school and been shocked at the lengths to which the teachers go to drain magic from their pupils, decides to train her as the first female magician.

And that's not all that's going on: English magic is fading, and Zacharias' enemies (i.e. almost everyone) are colluding to depose him as Sorcerer Royal, using that as an excuse. And the Sultan of Janda Baik wants British assistance in dealing with his local witches… (All right, as a long-time D&Der I immediately know what it means when n Znynlfvna ynql fzryyf bs ivartne.)

There's a lot happening here (this is the author's first novel though I gather she's been writing short stories for a while), and sometimes ideas fall over themselves and bits get left out. The fading of magic is presented at first as something entirely mysterious; then a couple of chapters later Zacharias knows that it's obviously and clearly because of X. There are similar jumps later, and it seems that Prunella's learning of magic is practically instantaneous.

Language is odd. There are some lovely moments, such as a mention of "the thaumaturgical schools at Seaton and Yarrow", or:

"I beg you will not be concerned by the skull at the window—it is only a harmless relic. In life it belonged to Felix Longmire, who was exceedingly mild-tempered as Sorcerers Royal go."

This did not seem to assuage his visitors' nervousness.

But there are also odd missteps, like the surname "Gentleman" which just sounds completely wrong to me for that class and period. Yes, there have been people with that surname in the real world, but every time I read it I was jerked out of my immersion in the story. Similarly, the comedy of manners (Prunella is unabashedly in London to find a husband) doesn't always mesh well with the huge magical goings-on that form the primary plot, and again there are gaps in the proceedings; it feels a little like watching a film as one's half asleep, with things suddenly having changed since the last time they were mentioned. All sorts of potentially interesting conflicts are built up, and then quietly resolved off-stage or forgotten about. The romance doesn't so much build up over the course of the narrative as start, sit there at the same level for ages, then get suddenly resolved at the end. And Prunella does something which seems as though it should make her distinctly less sympathetic, but nobody in the book ever sees this.

It's not a bad book, but I don't think it deserves the adulation that's being heaped on it. Great ideas, but the technical skills of writing (especially at this length) aren't really there yet.

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