Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer-to-the-crownRegular readers (i.e. three people and a software bot) will recall that I’ve been meaning to read Sorcerer to the Crown for a while, after it was recommended by essentially All of the Internet.

It’s known primarily as a response to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and specifically to that novel’s treatment of Stephen Black, a former slave who finds favour with the evil fairy summoned by Mr Norrell.

So Sorcerer to the Crown takes place in a Georgian/Regency world in which the study and practice of magic is confined officially to a Royal Society of upper class gentlemen. Although the upper classes turn a blind eye to the use of household magic by domestics, gentlewomen are effectively forbidden to practice it, those showing an aptitude for magic sent to schools where they are taught to suppress it in order to spare their weak female minds.

Enter Our Protagonists. Zacharias Wythe shows many Stephen-ish qualities: a former slave bought as an infant by Sir Stephen when he showed magical talent, he has at the slightly patronising behest of his benefactor worked his way up to become Sorcerer Royal, much to the disgust of the Royal Society. Despite his rank, Zacharias has to fight for every small victory: unable to afford the luxury of anger or impatience, he has to remain calm and collected long beyond what’s expected of anyone else – in part because Sir Stephen has explicitly laid on his shoulders the burden of representing all black people, so Zacharias is as much symbol as person.

Zacharias’ major challenge in office is this: England is losing her magic, threatening the Royal Society with the imminent loss of its political power. On a trip to the border with Fairyland to find out what’s going on, Zacharias meets the second of Our Protagonists: Prunella Gentleman, a young woman whose mother was Indian and whose father killed himself. She lives with the mistress of one of the aforementioned schools for inconveniently magical women, occupying an undefined social position between servant and gentlewoman, helping control the occasionally unruly pupils of the school with her own inconvenient magic. When the schoolmistress caves to the demands of her pupils’ parents and informs Prunella that she is to become a servant, Prunella runs away, comes across Zacharias, and strikes a bargain with him: she will learn magic, and become a poster child for the cause of female magic-use, if he introduces her to London society and finds her a husband.

If Zacharias plays by the rules of patriarchal power and still finds the deck rigged against him, Prunella is Cho’s exploration of the power of the outsider who doesn’t play by the rules. Her uncertain social status gives her a lot of freedom: she’s not held to the same standards as gentlewomen of family, and at the same time her knowledge of the rules of society, and her association with the Sorcerer Royal, allows her to move in higher circles than a servant would. Though she faces her own challenges – being a mixed-race woman, she tends to be unfairly underestimated – she destabilises Regency power structures by existing to some extent outside them.

I think that to some extent this nicely illustrates the relationship between Clarke and Cho’s novels. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a novel which digs through the patriarchal structures of Regency England, but its power is limited by the fact that it presents itself as a weighty Regency biography – a genre that, historically speaking, inevitably centres on white men (because of Regency assumptions about what stories are important to tell, about canonicity, and so on). Its two central characters, although they come to recognise to some extent the toll Regency society takes on those who aren’t white men, are still, at the end of the book, the ones with all the power (literally); so the minorities Clarke writes about are only ever passive agents. On the other hand, Sorcerer to the Crown is an example of that much-maligned genre, the Regency romance: frowned upon by mainstream patriarchy for frivolousness, it nevertheless literally destabilises traditional power structures (in this case, the Regency biography that centres white men) precisely by existing outside them. And in this book, power does move from the hands of the elite into those of the outsiders: so that minorities become active agents, working towards a different kind of society.

I see Sorcerer to the Crown is the first of a trilogy – I’ll be interested to see what Cho does with the next two books.

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