First in the Sorcerer Royal trilogy
By Zen Cho
Available now from Ace/Roc (Penguin Random House)
I've been looking forward to Zen Cho's debut novel. Her shorter works have showcased her command of language and character. Her novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is probably what she's best known for, and who wouldn't want to be known for writing such a humorous delight? (It's available for free on her website, by the way.) Even if I wasn't familiar with Cho, I would want to read SORCERER TO THE CROWN. The cover is gorgeously subtle, the title is evocative, and the back promises a possible murder, magical mysteries, and a runaway orphan.
That runaway orphan, Prunella Gentleman, is the runaway character for me. She's been raised in a school for magical girls, where she exists somewhat between classes - not a servant, but not a student. (Especially not since it is clear that her mother wasn't white, as her father was.) Prunella is just barely a grown woman with no money to her name, but plenty of intelligence and some untrained magic. She knows she has to secure her own future, and so she pursues it. Prunella performs one of the most cold-hearted acts in SORCERER TO THE CROWN, but she never lost my sympathy.
(The secondary character that stole my heart was Mak Genggang, an older and most formidable woman. Also, an excellent source of comedy due to her refusal to bow to English social rules.)
Zacharias Wythe is the eponymous sorcerer, and that position is giving him much grief. His appointment wasn't popular, especially since he is the first black sorcerer in England. When his mentor died, he was the only person present, which adds to the dislike, as does the fact that English sorcerers are finding they have less and less magic to work with and it is easy to blame the man in power. He's a romantic figure, with his quiet dignity and pursuit of duty as he sees it. (He's rather progressive, so many of the men under him see his duty differently.)
Cho uses a very mannered style for SORCERER TO THE CROWN that evokes the historical time period of the setting and reinforces her themes of class and social mobility. She's created an intriguing alternate history, where magical diplomacy is as important as martial. In fact, all of the English sorcerers in the story are bound by what they can do given that they and the French sorcerers have agreed not to get involved in the current war.
The largest weakness, if you want to look at it that way, is the plot. SORCERER TO THE CROWN is about the characters and their relationships - romance, fidelity, hatred, rivalry - these are the things that drive the story. Many problems are presented and do get solved, but the focus is less on how they are resolved than who and why. The plot is a distant concern to what Cho is trying to accomplish with the novel.
SORCERER TO THE CROWN is the first in a trilogy, but stands completely on its own. I look forward to the second book and I'm eager to see what aspect of the characters' lives Cho explores next, but I would be satisfied with SORCERER TO THE CROWN even if the other two books never materialize.