Read Along with Faye is a new series of book reviews and commentary by Faye Bi on the Sirens communications staff, in which she attempts to read 25 books and complete the 2016 Sirens Reading Challenge. The series will consist mostly of required “theme” books and will post monthly. We invite you to read along and discuss! Light spoilers ahead.
Upon discovering Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, I essentially flailed my arms in excitement. Magic in 19th century England with two charming protagonists and the wit and manners of a Jane Austen novel? It’s like the book fairy left me a package stamped FAYE on it.
Zacharias Wythe is the adopted African son of Sir Stephen, the Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers (a Royal Society of magicians if you will), but under mysterious circumstances, Sir Stephen dies and Zacharias is thrust into power. Magic is dwindling in England and other magicians are quick to point fingers at Zacharias as the cause. Meanwhile, at Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, where women are taught to suppress their magic because they don’t have the brains to be sorcerers, Prunella Gentleman makes the magical discovery of the century, and thus her and Zacharias’s paths cross, and mayhem ensues.
Other reviewers have put Sorcerer to the Crown in conversation with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Sorcerer to the Crown handles systemic racism, sexism and oppression in ways that the latter doesn’t even begin to touch. The fact that the other magicians constantly blame Zacharias for all of England’s magical troubles and suspect seediness in Sir Stephen’s death, yet still must treat him with outward civility as demanded by the social requirements of the time, will resonate with anyone familiar with American politics in the last eight years. A black man, no matter that he occupies the most powerful magical role in the land, will always need to be better, more exemplary and more polite than his white counterparts, despite the countless microaggresssions lobbied at him each day at each moment, from ill-wishing colleagues to his own mother. It is no wonder he is read as cold or unreadable, unwilling to betray his emotions.
Prunella, whose parallel path puts her into the care of Mrs. Daubeney, is the daughter of an Indian woman and an English gentleman. She’s been taught all her life that her huge potential for magic is shameful and unladylike, but she kind of gives the middle finger to all her naysayers with a cheeky smile and wave. When Zacharias makes an appearance at Mrs. Daubeney’s school, she manages to convince him to take her with him to London and make a society debut. Prunella is the bright shining star of the book, a nosy, master manipulator with zero inhibitions who gets shit done. Her experience is intersectional: with mixed parentage, she’s light enough to travel in London’s fashionable circles, but brown enough to not be a society gentleman’s respectable wife. But the difference between her and Zacharias is that she isn’t afraid to stomp on toes. (“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely. “Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased. Lulz.)
It’s no surprise that Prunella is the one who moves the plot, which I won’t comment on too much because of spoilers and in the interest of time, but because I just want to talk about voice. The voice of Sorcerer to the Crown is just so delightful. Take “A female may be poor or delicate or a spinster, but it does seem ill-advised of Miss Liddiard to combine all three” or “He was a typical specimen of the younger son in avid pursuit of medicority with which the Theurgist’s teemed…” Cho herself cites Georgette Heyer as one of her influences, along with Susanna Clarke. But what she’s done with Sorcerer is what I hope more authors will do: be influenced by the great works of the past and with similar wit and style, create new, original stories for all.
Sorcerer to the Crown is also a 2016 Books and Breakfast book.
Next Month: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Faye Bi works as a book publicist in New York City, and is a member of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.