I’m not sure I see the similarities between Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In Cho’s book, as in Clarke’s, magic is a part of the 19th-ish century British society, but unlike most fantasies those with magic are not of the ruling clan. That is to say that the governing and the running of the country is left in the hands of a government which is decidedly un-magical. Magic is treated as just another society, like horticulturists (I have no idea why that and no other popped up in my mind). And that’s as far as the parallels exist—but then again, since I read Clarke’s behemoth of a book early last year, it’s possible my memory’s a little rusty!
As the story begins we find that the magic in Britain has been slowly dwindling for some time. Nobody knows why but the crisis reaches its head when a black man, Zacharias Whyte, becomes the Sorcerer Royale. Whispers and rumors imply that it is Zacharias’s blackness that has resulted in this magical malady.
Women of course are completely forbidden to do any sort of magic—their frames being thought of as too frail to support the travails of “magicking.” Indeed, the very idea of a woman doing magic is held in disdain:
Nothing disgusted a thaumaturge so much as a witch. Shameless, impudent, meddling females, who presumed to set at naught the Society’s prohibition on women’s magic, and duped the common people with their potions and cantrips!
(Did you know there was a word called cantrip? Or prolix? Or directoire? Or geas? Cho’s use of these old words very much evoke the sense of another era)
Enter Prunella Gentleman who’s more than ready to challenge everyone’s notions of female magic, left, right and center. It’s not that she sets out to do this—if anything she realizes that the best option available to her is to marry. She’s part of a school whose express purpose is teaching women how NOT to do magic:
It was a curious contradiction that even as the rest of England languished for want of magic, the school was afflicted with more than it knew what to do with. Being a school for gentlewitches, it did not, of course, instruct its students in practical thaumaturgy. Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint.
But who she is cannot be stamped out of Prunella, as Zacharias soon realizes, vigorous attempts to the contrary. Prunella is resourceful, and unapologetically ambitious. And her ambitiousness is a thing of joy. She is the yang to Zacharias’s yin (yes, there’s some delicious gender flipping in the story), and she simply steals all the scenes in which she features.
One of my favorite scenes is where Prunella is doing a particularly dangerous piece of magic and Zacharias is trying to be noble, urging Prunella to make a run for it:
“Go,” he said urgently. “Wake the servants, and get out of the building. I will contain them.” He had no notion how he would do it, but at least he could try to limit the damage, even if he were destroyed in the attempt.
Prunella was not at all grateful for this display of nobility, however.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said crossly. “Why do not you go, and take the servants with you?” She wrested herself from Zacharias’s grasp. . . “There is nothing to be alarmed about, only I wish you would go back to bed, and not trouble yourself about my business. I cannot deal with the treasures in your presence. It would be very improper!”
Prunella’s brown (she’s of Indian origin), and Zacharias is black, brought up by a white couple. Both these characteristics are very much a thing of the story. By which I mean that while the color of our protagonists’ skin leads to them being subjected to all sorts of prejudices by the rest of the society, who they are portrayed as is so much more than just their brownness or blackness.
Then there’s Mak Genggang, a Malay witch I think, who is an old, wily hag, cackling away in glory while everyone around her fumbles and stumbles! I love all the scenes with her too! And the ones with Rollo as well! Oh and the whole of the “epic battle” while all the gentlemen keep nattering about! What am I talking about? Oh, just go read the book, and find out yourself!