Sorcerer to the Crown is a charming, Regency-styled historical fantasy. Zacharias Wythe, freed slave and Sorcerer Royal, is determined to discover why the available magic in Britain is declining. Unfortunately, due his race and the mysterious circumstances of his predecessor’s demise, Zacharias has an uphill battle. Members of the respected Society of Unnatural Philosophers refuse to take Zacharias seriously. In addition, Zacharias also has to contend with paralyzing headaches, attacks from an unknown foe, and educate an unexpected student, Miss Prunella Gentleman.
Prunella was orphaned very young and taken in by the mistress of a school for gentlewitches, of which the aim is to suppress all magical inclinations in young ladies. After all, convention dictates that “Magic was too strong a force for a women’s frail bodies – too potent a brew for their weak minds – and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women” (p. 57). Unfortunately, women do possess magic, and one talented young woman is about to become a thorn in the Society’s side.
After Prunella has the misfortune to embarrass the headmistress of the school where she teaches and lives, Prunella finds herself the ward of Zacharias. While Prunella has little interest in cultivating her own magic, she is in possession of several magical objects, which would grant her power in this male dominated world in which women possess very little:
A woman possessed of a key to magic, however – a woman who might at her pleasure grant or withhold men’s access to power – that was a different matter! Such a woman need never worry about poverty or obscurity. With such leverage Prunella did not doubt she would gain all she desired – position, influence, security – provided she were canny and careful (p. 78).
And Prunella is determined to be canny and careful, even avoiding telling Zacharias the truth about the powerful objects that have come into her possession. It’s only after coming to London and being forced to learn how to wield her magic that Prunella starts to consider the possibility of another path before her.
One expects Sorcerer to the Crown to be a rather light and entertaining read, and in some respects, this is the case. However, there is a lot of intelligence and introspective moments throughout Sorcerer to the Crown that makes this book something more than a fun, magical romp (although it is that as well). Considering the status of both Zacharias and Prunella as “other” because of their skin colour is it unsurprising that the author chose to explore what this means for both of them. For Zacharias, it means that the Society is continually trying to usurp him of his status as Sorcerer Royal in favour of a more “worthy” candidate, never mind that Zacharias possesses are the important qualities (i.e. magical abilities). For Prunella the fact that she is not only half-Indian, but also a woman who has a strong magical ability complicates her mission to secure her precarious future.
For me, it is how Zacharias and Prunella deal with the adversary that they encounter that I found so compelling about Sorcerer to the Crown. Both characters deal with their so-called disadvantages in very different ways. Zacharias is quiet and reserved and Prunella outspoken and controversial, and each approach yield differing results. For example, Zacharias’ relationship with his mentor Sir Stephen is complicated by the fact that Sir Stephen bought Zacharias, separating him as a young boy from his parents. On one hand, Zacharias feels an obligation to the man that has raised him from childhood, given him a home and made it possible for him to rise to the position of Sorcerer Royal. On the other hand, this is the man that took him from his parents, so of course, there is resentment there, but is difficult for Zacharias to actually voice this or any opposition of any kind to Sir Stephen:
Affection there had always been between them, whatever their disagreements – and there had been more of these than Zacharias had permitted Sir Stephen to know. But their relationship could never have been mistaken for one of equality while Sir Stephen lived (p. 120).
In addition to the cultural study, Sorcerer to the Crown has a lot of great humour with Prunella’s sense of fun and outspokenness as well as a lovely charm with its magical atmosphere. Magic is not always frightful or powerful, it’s also delightful as can been seen when Prunella is instructed in cloud riding:
“Now, Miss Gentleman, if you will submit to being helped onto my old cloud – a steady, good-tempered mount, who will show you the way of it – you are quite balanced? You must think yourself into equilibrium. Cloud-riding is an act of disciplined imagination. Splendid! Away we go!” (p. 276).
An act of “disciplined imagination” – a turn of phrase I find completely charming and lovely and basically sums up why Sorcerer to the Crown is such a wonderful read. After all, isn’t reading itself an act of “disciplined imagination”?
If you’re a fan of traditional Regency, comedy and magic, Sorcerer to the Crown is a book that combines all three to perfection.
If you liked the combination of traditional Regency with magic, you can’t go wrong with following this one up with Shades of Milk and Honey. While I think the pacing of Sorcerer to the Crown is better (or I was just in a better frame of mind to appreciate it), Shades of Milk and Honey is it’s equal in atmosphere.
Another historical fantasy tale that is likely to appeal is J. Kathleen Cheney’s The Golden City, which is set in 1900s Portugal. If you were at all interested in the exploration of race and power in Sorcerer to the Crown, you are likely to find Cheney’s novel equally interesting as it’s hero and heroine are from very different cultures which prescribe very different cultural norms. Be aware that this is the first in a trilogy, so be prepared to read all three.
It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly I think V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is a good similar read, all I can say is that I really appreciated how the author conceptualized the magic system in this world. If you appreciated the flawless integration of magic in Regency England in Sorcerer to the Crown, you are likely to appreciate the intricate three-tired magical world that Schwab creates.