Sorcerer to the Crown, the debut novel from Zen Cho, starts somewhat slowly, as befits its alt-Regency setting and society. We are introduced very deliberately to the new Sorcerer Royal, one Zacharias Wythe, a young man who has taken the post upon the death of his mentor and adopted father, Sir Stephen. He’s an intense, controlled man, but also still grieving, and unsure of his new role. Though his status as the head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is more or less unassailable—the position is decided by magic—there’s a general disregard for his competence, suitability, and even humanity.
The trouble is, Zacharias is a black man in an English Regency setting, in a position of considerable power and importance, and his dubious class status and unacceptable skin color has the upper class twits of the Society feeling both affronted and aggressive. Zacharias was purchased as a slave by Sir Stephen because of his innate magical talents, and raised in this odd mixture of adopted son and social experiment. Zacharias’s treatment due to his race isn’t his only problem: England is experiencing a crisis of magic, as in, it’s simply ebbing away; Society chickenhawks are urging political moves that will provoke conflict with Napoléon, which, given the magical crisis, England will certainly lose; and a new familiar (the fairy creatures that give wizards their power) hasn’t been spotted in England in decades. Oh, also, many think Zacharias killed his mentor.
With the plots all piled up like that, it might sound like this is a broody, political drag. Far from it—Cho’s prose is witty and sly, and she has a prodigious sense of comic timing. Sorcerer to the Crown has the froth of a Georgette Heyer novel, but it’s just the cream on an astute rendering of complicated people. It is true that left alone, Zacharias would probably just drag himself around with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Enter Prunella Gentlewoman, a sparkling, active character whose sheer energy (and, occasionally, naivety) shakes him up, and drives the plot.
We meet her in a lather, cleaning attics for the headmistress of a school for the education of gentlewitches, her thoughts racing around from daydreams of fancy parties to the more prosaic concerns of managing the students. This is no Hogwarts, though: the school’s mandate is to repress the innate magical abilities of its gently born girls, as magic is unseemly in women of the upper classes. Prunella herself is neither teacher nor servant, but another orphan, a ward of the headmistress, aged out of her student status, existing in an uncomfortable unlabeled fallow area. Though her father was an Englishman, her mother is unknown, and racially ambiguous.
Zacharias meets Prunella while breaking up a magical conflict between two of the girls, and spies her casually using a complicated magic women supposedly cannot perform. She contrives to be taken to London so she can find a husband and the security that entails; all this magical business is fine, but it will not keep her fed and clothed. Zacharias investigates the weakening English magic while dodging assassination attempts and managing unruly (and unkind) Society members. Prunella and Zacharias are both working out their places in the world, finding their talents and limitations, and it all builds and builds into an explosive crescendo. (I swear, I missed several train stops obsessively reading the conclusion.) Sorcerer to the Crown is one of the smartest, funniest, finest debut novels I’ve read in a long time, just as charming as its protagonists, just as magical as its world.