Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown is one of those books that cause people of a certain nature to go into palpitations, in that it’s a piece of genre fiction that makes it it’s business to tackle issues of social justice. I very much wanted it to also be the sort of book that said people insist can’t exist, ie a book that does all while also telling a very entertaining story.
For a while I very much thought it was going to be. Alas, despite having a lot to recommend it ended up comprehensively failing to hold my interest. What follows is going to be partially a review and partially an attempt to figure out why.
The plot (which bears a more than passing resemblance to Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, although it’s to an extent that I’d be happy referring to as “inspired by” rather than “ripped off of”) concerns a 19th century England where magic has started to suffer a mysterious decline. Zacharias is the recently appointed Sorcerer to The Crown, and a lot of people are unhappy with this because he also happens to be black. During his magical education he was sheltered by his patron (and former holder of the Sorcerer Royal’s office) Sir Stephen, but with Sir Stephen’s death his political enemies are circling. The situation goes from precarious to outright dangerous when rumours start circulating that Zacharias murdered his former mentor– rumours that he can’t properly address because he is actually hiding something about the night of Sir Stephen’s death.
In order to both investigate the decline in England’s magic and get out of London for a while Zacharias travels to the border of Fairyland. On the way he fulfills an obligation to a friend by giving a talk at a school where the magically-gifted daughters of the upper class are taught how to not use their powers (the only thing more ridiculous than a black man using magic being a woman doing the same), and there he meets Prunella, a young woman with a Mysterious Origin and a boatload of raw magical potential. This is enough for Zacharias to embark on a quest to reform women’s magical education, with Prunella serving as his apprentice and test case– but unfortunately for him, all Prunella really wants is to escape her dead-end life for the glamour and opportunity of London.
What all this turns into is a Romp combining elements of high-flying adventure with comedy of manners style shenanigans, and in that regard it works quite well. The dialogue is witty and fast paced and the characters bounce off of each other in entertaining ways, especially when Prunella and Zacharias collide.
But as I read more of the book, something odd started to happen. I found myself putting it down after shorter and shorter intervals, thinking “this is neat! I should read more!” and then I didn’t, sometimes for days at a time. At one point I straight-up forgot the book existed for more than a week, only remembering to plough through the rest when I saw the cover pop up on the Amazon home page. At some point I had to face up to the fact that these aren’t words that are usually associated with gripping page-turners.
So why didn’t Sorcerer To The Crown work for me? A few reasons.
The first and most immediate is that Zacharias just straight up isn’t a very interesting character, which is a problem when half the novel is devoted to his point of view. His situation in life is fascinating and fraught with tension, but the man himself is a fairly thin example of the stuffy uptight academic archetype, except that unlike a lot of similar characters he’s got his heart in the right place most of the time. I enjoyed witnessing the antics that ensue when he takes Prunella under his wing (particularly his complete failure to realize that she has zero intention of actually being his protege), but that wasn’t enough to carry me through the book.
Another problem is that the story has a whole bushel of mysteries (mysteries come in bushels now) that it waves in your face from very early on (what actually happened on the night of Sir Stephen’s death? Where did his familiar go? Why doesn’t Zacharias have a familiar? What’s the nature of Zacharias’ mysterious illness? Why did Prunella’s father kill himself? What’s in the old satchel she finds in the attic? How does she activate what’s in the old satchel that she found in the attic? Why is Fairyland blocking the flow of magic to England?) and then takes too long to start paying off, such that by the time the answers rolled around I had stopped caring. I love a good mystery, and a really compelling one can placate me through multiple volumes, but if you start throwing half a dozen of them at me within the first three chapters I’ll very quickly lose patience. None of this was helped by the fact that I wasn’t particularly enamored with the characters or waiting on tenterhooks to hear about their mysterious backstories to begin with.
For about the first third of the book the plot feels oddly choppy. The focus jumps from Stephen’s tribulations to a foreign relations issue over a Malaysian island being attacked by witches to Prunella and her Mysteries to the decline in English magic. I kept wondering which of these plot threads was meant to the main narrative through-line, before realizing that the answer is “all of them” even though they feel disconnected enough that they don’t really form a cohesive story until well into the book (the thing with the witches in particular feels like an unnecessary distraction for way too long). I actually found myself wondering if this was originally a much shorter story focused solely on Zacharias and Prunella before having additional plot bolted on to turn it into a full-length novel. That’s very much how it feels, especially for the first third or so.
The act of reading Sorcerer To The Crown was a frustrating situation where I kept feeling as if I should like it more than I actually did. It’s kind of like seeing a really delicious cake that looks exactly like the sort of cake you love, smells sumptuous and has a crowd of people eagerly tucking into it and falling to the ground in ecstasy, but then you bite into a slice and it tastes like wet cardboard. Now, is that because it actually does taste like wet cardboard, or is there something wrong with you tastebuds?
The question is moot, because in the end all that matters is that wet cardboard isn’t very fun to eat.