This is my favorite book so far this year. Seriously.
Though this novel isn't marketed to YA or as YA, this is a crossover I need you to read. If you like Regency novels, tales of the fey, Jane Austen, or 19th century anything, you want this. Buy it online, visit a bookstore, reserve it at your public library. Go on, I'll wait.
Now. Check out The Book Smugglers guest blog post with author Zen Cho wherein she talks about the influences that shaped this book. It is, and she is, sixty kinds of genius. I read this book slowly at first, trying so hard to roll the situations over my tongue and savor them... and then I looked up and I'd finished it already. Drat. I wanted to start over and read it again, but I equally wanted to thrust it into Tech Boy's hands and stand over him until he started it. Sadly, my selfishness ruled the day.
This is SUCH an excellent story. It's ostensibly about magic in England -- but a half step deeper into the narrative, it becomes about such very real things as microaggressions and this relentless, "hail fellow, well met" community racism that just dissolves the soul. At times I snickered aloud, other moments made me feel like I had to clutch my chest and recover from a punch to the solar plexus. The author shapes her characters with a charming affection and they charm the reader in return. This is a BUY series, which for me, eternal haunter of the library, woman of far too many books and far too many book boxes (and veteran of far too many moves), is rare and special. But, don't take my word for it...! Read it, read it, read it, read it.
This has been a public service announcement.
Summary: At eighteen, Prunella Gentleman has run out of classwork, the options of her class, and out of time. Her future as a mixed race Englishwoman of gentle breeding and no antecedents means staying at the boarding school for gentlewitches that she's been at since she was tiny and trying to find a way to fit... while being groomed for a life of staying in the background, hiding her magic, stopping the younger girls from dueling with theirs, miding her "betters" and doing all the work. It is a decidedly unpalatable future for someone so brilliant and sassy, and she's not having it. It's a rare stroke of luck that brings the Royal Sorcerer to her school. He's high up in government and must be quite well connected. If she can just get him to help her, she could escape the hand that Fate has dealt...
In a stroke of incredibly poor timing, Zacharias Wythe's mentor has died, leaving him in he unwanted post of Sorcerer Royale. To complicate things, Zacharias has been enjoined to do his bit for the English government in a matter touching on another country's political conundrum - just when it's being noised about that he killed his predecessor and adoptive father, Sir Stephen, in order to take the magical staff of The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and succeed him in his position. It would be wonderful if Zacharias could do what the government is asking him to do - but it's against his conscience and his ethics, and also, it's potentially impossible. Then there's the matter of Sir Stephen's missing familiar -- and the fact that England seems to be leaking magic like a vast and shiny sieve. There are major problems afoot in the Unnatural Society, and the old guard is certain that it must be the fault of that upstart African who thought to set himself above the sorcerers of English blood that the country has come into so much difficulty, right? It is unjust - and cruel - to blame Zacharias for being elevated to a position he doesn't want, on the grave of someone with whom he had a complicated and obligatory relationship -- but silence and obligation are a part of Zacharias' life, and a part of the duty he's embraced for years. He suffers the outrageously cruel remarks people make in silence... because that's how it is, after all. One doesn't make a fuss, or at least, one doesn't directly confront one's accusers -- what accusers, after all, and of what could he be accused? His crime, such as it is, is obvious - once a slave, now a sorcerer, and the color of his skin has indicted him. Despite the tenuousness of his position as the King's magician, Zacharias is a brilliant sorcerer and a very stubborn and ethical -- and, deep down, very hurt, lonely, and angry -- man. And one headstrong young woman, a Fairyland full of stubborn fey, witches in revolt, and a bunch of racist English magicians can't stop him from doing right, and making things right, no matter the cost.
Peaks: Both characters are Other within their society; a gentlewoman with magic when women are not meant to show any vulgar knowledge of the aforementioned; slightly brown when the flower of English womanhood is milk white, a woman of no family when England rises and falls on family trees. Zacharias' troubles, as a former slave, are numerous, and the cruel kindness of being saved from that world - and thrust into another on which there is a brightly lit stage, expectations, and a magician's staff -- he, too, is Other and resented for it.
The political issues are squarely about the rights of women. I won't say anymore but -- go, women!
I mentioned Jane Austen -- Zen Cho is a Malaysian write and not an Englishwoman from the 18th and 19th century, but by golly if she hasn't reanimated an Austen hero. Zacharias Whyte is ... so ... constipated with duty and hemmed in with rules and chained to obligation. He's perfectly Darcy, only he's too realistic to have any overweening pride. Instead, he knows what he owe. And he owes, and he owes, and he owes, and he takes what he isn't owed right in the teeth and never loses his composure - just his sleep and his sense of peace. Zacharias holds up such a perfect mask of civility that when he's insulted to his face, people can't tell that the barbs hit, and that he bleeds. As a character, and an example to Prunella, he's larger than life.
Meanwhile, Prunella is zany and delightful - and privileged and completely blind to it, which may cause a few eye rolls in some readers at first. Watching her learn her own mind, as well as come into a better understanding of the world around her is a lot of fun, because as much as Zacharias accepts -- she does not. She asks questions, she makes observations, she throws herself wholeheartedly against the strictures the world puts up to bind her -- and does not mind a little disorder in the cause of freedom. She's a burden and a pest and a trouble to Zacharias from the moment they meet. What I enjoy is that in the end, Zacharias actually learns something from her, and empowers her to do more and be more.
Valleys: These are observations, not valleys: the action is sometimes a little quick, and readers may find themselves rereading to figure out what just happened. As mentioned, the language is Regency, so readers may need to read carefully until they catch the cadences. This is also the first in a trilogy, I believe - and we've no way of knowing how long until the second book emerges, though this one was published in September. However this is a fully told story - beginning, middle, end and no cliffhanger - so read away.
Conclusion: This is a brilliantly-written book featuring a half-Indian heroine, and African hero, and it is written by a Malay woman. Were you seeking in 2016 to up your diversity in reading, this might be one to pick up. If you're just looking for a brilliant story to lose yourself in with a pot of tea and a duvet, this is what you want, for sure. Happiest of reading New Year's.
I devoured my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!