Book Club Review: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it at the library!

Continent: Europe

Book Description: At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—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…

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m currently in the last few months of the “My Year with Jane Austen” review series, so when I drew Europe for the continent choice, my mind was naturally in a Regency-era place. (Not to mention, Europe is the kind of choice that’s almost too wide-open with possibilities!) I had been gifted this book several years ago, but for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I think I just never really spent the time figuring out what it was about. But I was pleased to find that it perfectly matched what I was looking for in a bookclub choice this go around: historical fiction, plus fantasy, plus a diverse cast, plus a plot that tackles social commentary in a time period that is often very white and very gender-role specific.

There was a lot to like about this book for me. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed this type of mannered, historical writing style that seems to relish the use of long sentences and overly proper grammar. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely my cup of tea. It’s also a tricky style of writing to master and can often read as unnatural with strange breaks or anachronisms thrown in that break the entire thing up. Sherry Thomas comes to mind as a current author who has really nailed this style of writing. So I was super excited to see that Zen Cho could hold her own in this respect. The writing was confident, clever, and perfectly fit the type of story she was trying to tell.

I also really liked our main two characters, Zacharias and Prunella. Each are struggling against the prejudices and restrictions that are being placed on them for being who they are. Zacharias is a freed slave who has been raised up in magic as a prodigy of the previous Sorcerer to the Crown. His entire life has been made up of being an example for an entire continent’s worth of people. Along with that comes the awkward balance of his love for his teacher and father figure and the struggle that the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, for all his reforming ways, was still never fully able to comprehend Zacharias’s position and life experience. It perfectly illustrated the kind of passive racism that we all must work against.

As for Prunella, she’s not only a half-Indian young woman, but she’s been orphaned and raised in a girls’ school. In the version of Regency England, magic in women is so feared and distrusted that entire schools are devoted to teaching young women how to repress their abilities, sometimes at great risk to their own health. A strong magic user herself, Prunella has always struggled against the limitations of the life being set out before her. I really loved this character. She was bold, self-assured, and not willing to be held back by the preconceptions of those around her. And it wasn’t just the obvious ones, like women shouldn’t do magic. She also sees the practical side of being a woman of the times and argues with Zacharias about the economy of the marriage business for women, even magical women.

So, yep, I really liked this book. It was definitely the kind of thing that fit in my general reading preferences, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much it engaged with several topics. There’s a sequel out it seems, so I’ll be adding that to my TBR list.

Kate’s Thoughts

While my reaction towards fantasy novels of the YA persuasion is usually skepticism, followed by ‘eh’, the big ol’ dragon on the cover of “Sorcerer to the Crown” was enough to get me on board. And while dragons didn’t play a large role in the story, I was still tickled and happy by a few aspects of this book, even if the genre had me a little nervous.

As Serena mentioned, I thought that Cho was really wise in taking a genre and a setting that can sometimes fall into being very white and giving voice to two non-white characters who function in a society that is constantly Other-ing them. Zacharias especially had a lot of moments of inner conflict regarding his place as Socerer Royal, and while I was worried that his relationship with Sir Stephen would be a strange paternalistic one that negates the clear power dynamic, Cho isn’t afraid to point out that while Zacharias was taken from slavery, Sir Stephen left his parents behind and took their son away from them. While it isn’t a focal point to the tale, this moment was hit home as the travesty and violence that it was. And we also had moments of people commenting on Prunella’s parentage, with reflections of English colonialism towards India and the people who lived there before imperialism took hold.

Also, Prunella. I really loved Prunella. For one, if you give me a book about witches, I will immediately have an affection for it, and while this witch aspect wasn’t the usual kind that I find myself reading, Prunella was a hoot. She, too, has societal roadblocks due to her being biracial AND a woman, and seeing her fight against that and stay true to herself was quite satisfying. I also loved the chemistry between her and Zacharias, and it did feel a lot like reading an Austen romance at times, especially when they would bicker. Serena also brought up the writing style, which was such a breath of fresh air! I was thinking back to “The Parasol Protectorate” series in terms of the tongue in cheek wit and stylization, which I also enjoy quite a bit.

At the end of the day, it did feel a little long for me and weighed down by the fantasy aspects (witches or not), and I probably won’t go on in the series. But, all of that said, I did find “Sorcerer to the Crown” to be engaging and outside the box of my experiences with the genre, and had a fun time reading it!

Serena’s Rating 8: A great balance of strong writing, enjoyable characters, and a plot that explores social justice topics in a fantasy setting.

Kate’s Rating 7: An entertaining and charming fantasy tale with likable characters and some good comments on race, class, and gender.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is written in the style of a Regency era novel (like a Jane Austen book, for example). How do you think the style or writing impacted the story? What did it add to the story? Or take away?
  2. Both Zacharias and Prunella face challenges based on their race and gender. How well do you think the story engaged with these topics?
  3. How did you feel about the way that this book dealt with the topic of slavery, particularly through Zacharias’s experiences with his mentor and father figure?
  4. This is a fantasy novel as well as a historical fiction story. What did you think about the magical elements and the way they were fitted into the traditional Regency story?
  5. Prunella and Zacharias must both make some tough choices near the end of the story. How did you like the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sorcerer to the Crown” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “Sorcerer to the Crown” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives”

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