Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

This book surprised me with its grown-up Harry Potter fantasy feeling and the social commentary it subtly worked into the gorgeous story.

4/5 stars

Release date: September 1, 2015

cover sorcerer to the crown

Amazon Description

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

My Review

I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House at SDCC. This in no way affected my review.

 I was drawn to this book by the alternate historical setting. Just the name–The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers–made me want to read this story.

I was not disappointed. The historical setting was well-crafted and felt realistic, even with the addition of a hierarchy of magical men. Set in Britain during the Napoleonic times, the political landscape that Zacharias faced was the epitome of “rock and a hard place.” The situation Zacharias found himself in was believable and appropriately complex; it easily connected to the modern political dilemmas faced in the Middle East and around the world. There was no perfect solution, which added depth to the plot and separated it from the YA world (where I would have expected some magical “fix all” to appear).

I loved the fantasy portion of this book. The different levels and types of magicians are briefly described, but they aren’t important to the story. The parts of the world building that you need to understand are clearly laid out, and the rest of the details are left vague, masterfully giving the reader a sense of a complete universe without overloading their memory.

The magic itself is based on compiling and combining magical formulas. I liked the original concept of constructing spells in an almost arithmetic way, and I enjoyed the fact that different magicians would create the same effect with different formulas. I only wish that the mechanics behind the formulas had been explained a bit more; I wanted to understand the magic more, so that I could feel more connected to what the main characters were doing throughout the story. Familiars, sorcerers’ “pets” that provide them with magic, were a great addition to the story, adding both a sinister plot angle and a level of cuteness.

Sorcerer to the Crown is strong in the character department. Zacharias was a good protagonist: duty-driven, reserved, persevering, and clearly intelligent. I appreciated that he didn’t love his job as the Sorcerer Royal; he wasn’t motivated by a love for power or prestige. His down-to-earth scholarly nature made me love him, and provided a foil for Prunella, the female lead.

Prunella was great in her own way–definitely the most surprising part of this book. She is freaking ruthless. She isn’t evil, but she has a strong Machiavellian side. Her moral code–while existent–was focused on different things than normal protagonists. As I said, Prunella was never vicious or psychopathic, but she was willing to go to extreme lengths to have the life she wanted for herself and her loved ones. While she was focused on being a proper English lady and desperately wanted a husband, she also maintained a strong and rebellious side. Prunella shocked me at first (and never really stopped), but she was such a fresh and original personality for a love interest that I ended up loving her. I wouldn’t invite her to Girl’s Night, however.

Prunella’s magical ability was, of course, amazing, and I liked the dynamic it created with Zacharias. Both of them were powerful, though Zacharias had more classical training, while Prunella’s magic was more instinctual. I liked the subtle romance that grew between them. The only problem was that Prunella overshadowed Zacharias, and by the end of the book, she had eclipsed him to essentially take on the role of protagonist.

By far the most interesting part of the story was the discussion of racism and sexism. Zacharias was a slave boy raised by the former Sorcerer Royal as a son. He was freed when he was a young teenager and got the best training and upbringing money could buy, but white English society still viewed him as an outsider and a usurper. Continuing to break barriers, Zacharias takes in Prunella as his apprentice. In this society, women born with magical ability are trained to suppress it, so Zacharias bringing a woman into the most prestigious group of magicians in Britain is unheard of. (It’s kind of an Obama/Clinton situation, to be honest.) While the sexism and racism presented in this book are set hundreds of years ago, the discussion of these social issues remains applicable to society today. These subplots added well-needed depth and originality to the plot. I wish I had read this book sooner, because it would have easily made the top of my TTT list about diversity.

The plot of Sorcerer to the Crown is based mostly on a three-sided political disaster, tied into England’s mysterious decreasing amount of magic. There was nothing addictive or particularly gripping about the plot, but I never considered DNF-ing it. The story was always moving along, just not at any breakneck speed. There were numerous mysteries presented at the beginning of the book that built suspense throughout; the reveals they resulted in were surprising and worked together to create a satisfying climax. Fans of fast-paced fantasy books would probably be disappointed by this book, but people who prefer a complex and nuanced plot to action scenes should pick this book up. 

Sorcerer to the Crown felt underdeveloped for a standalone book–not quite enough happened plot-wise–but I don’t think there should be a second book. Everything was wrapped up very nicely, and if a second book were published, it would have to have an amazing plot description for me to ruin the happy ending that this book left me with.

Though this book is clearly not YA, fans of the YA genre could still enjoy it. (I certainly did.) I would recommend this book to fans of historical fantasies who value plots that explore societal issues over action-packed stories.

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