Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
Published by Ace Books on September 1st, 2015
Genres: adult, fantasy
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Magic and mayhem collide with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—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…
In many ways, this book was such a perfect Christmas-time read. It is a Regency-era British historical fantasy that delights in the magic employed within its pages, and the utter charm of its characters and its world. The writing is also a treat; completely in the style of a book that had been written in the Regency era, it more than does its job in conveying the reader so completely to the world on its pages. When you want a book that’s going to wholly transport you, this is the sort you reach for.
In the world of Sorcerer to the Crown, Britain’s supply of magic has been on the decline for years. The flow of magic from Fairyland into the mortal realm has all but stopped, as have the presence of familiars, the spirits/vessels of magic needed to make a mere magician into a sorcerer. This being Regency Britain, there are many classes/levels of those who can work magic, magician being the lowest, going to thaumaturge (a scholar of magic who can only be from the upper class), to sorcerer.
Of course, magic is not for women, their constitutions being very delicate and their frames not made for the heavy, powerful burden of magic. What to do with women who are “inconveniently magical” then? The women of high birth are sent to special schools where they are trained to repress their magical abilities. Women of the working classes are permitted to do small magics on the sly that might benefit their betters.
Enter into this scene two rather inconveniently magical characters: Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman. Zacharias being inconveniently magical due to the color of his skin, and Prunella due to her womanness and uncertain parentage (though it is clear at least one parent is from India). Zacharias has the unfortunate burden of being Sorcerer Royal, having come to this position in a very mysterious and suspicious manner. Zacharias’ predecessor (and adoptive father) being the previous Sorcerer Royal is found dead. While Zacharias is found to be clear of any charges (was Sir Stephen even murdered?), he still faces much difficulty given not only the circumstance of his rise to power, but also the many prejudices against him. Making matters worse, Leofric, familiar to the Sorcerer Royal since the position was inaugurated, has disappeared. How can one even be a sorcerer, let alone Sorcerer Royal, without a familiar?
Alas, I didn’t quite connect to this one in the way I wanted to. I felt that both the plot and the worldbuilding stretched a little too thin. The book takes place in London, but you would hardly know it. The vast majority of scenes take place indoors; we hardly get to see either London or Fairyland. The plot basically centers around the mystery of England’s decline in magic. It is also very much concerned with what do with Prunella’s immensely powerful and therefore truly inconvenient magic. This book is nearly 400 pages but I could recount everything of importance that happens plot-wise in just a few sentences. It also honestly had me scratching my head at times. For instance, magic has apparently been on the decline for many years, yet View Spoiler » it takes Zacharias one trip to the border of Fairyland to find the cork that is stoppering the flow of magic. And it then takes him one trip to visit the King of Fairy to find out why they did this and begin to go about correcting course. Why/how was no one but Zacharias able to find this out in the fifty or so years since the decline began? « Hide Spoiler. Perhaps it is best to enter into the book knowing that it is very leisurely paced. This is not a high octane, adventure fantasy ride. If you are in the mood to luxuriate in descriptions of society in Regency England and appreciate the old fashioned writing, and the character work, then I think you would enjoy this one much more than I did!
Like I mentioned before, the writing is good. It’s fluid, descriptive, and charming. But I had a bit of a hard time with the style of perspective employed. I will say that I do traditionally have a hard time with books that are in third person, but switch perspective from paragraph to paragraph. It often disorients me and I have a hard time keeping up with who is now doing the thinking when just a few sentences ago that character was mentioned as the object of another’s thoughts.
I think that the characters were also underdeveloped a bit. I enjoyed both Zacharias and Prunella very much. Zacharias was stolid and reserved, kind and considerate, and wholly sympathetic. Prunella was saucy, sassy, and deservedly and delightfully arrogant and ambitious. However, I couldn’t tell you anything about either character other than these personality. What are their likes/dislikes? I have no idea. I wish they had been more rounded out. Also, at times the writing would get tedious. For instance, Zacharias would demure on something and the narration would go, “…., said Zacharias, as he was reserved of manner.” You don’t need to keep telling me that Zacharias is reserved of manner if you just write him that way (which he was, so I already get that).
There is a bit of romance here. Normally, this is exactly the sort of pairing I would ship so hard! Zacharias is, as we have established, rather reserved and formal. Prunella is the opposite of this, and so their interactions are delightful and comedic. But the development of the romance just didn’t work for me. It is occasionally written/reminded that both characters have a tendency toward blushing in the presence of the other. And both Prunella and Zacharias very occasionally consider their more than normal fondness for the other. But most of their interactions are concerned with the action of the story, and rarely are their affections reflected upon. I was very surprised when at the end View Spoiler » Zacharias proposes to Prunella and she accepts. They have barely flirted throughout the entirety of the book. I was expecting this romance thread to be drawn out and developed through the rest of the series. « Hide Spoiler.
There is also a lot going on here that I wish was addressed more often in fantasy, specifically gender, race, and imbalances of power. Neither Zacharias nor Prunella can ever escape the situations of their person that automatically give others automatic cause for hatred, distrust, and fear. But this, too, I found I wished had been more deeply examined. It’s often stated how much Zacharias and Prunella run up against these obstacles of prejudice, but they are mostly surface reflections. I wish the book had engaged more. Still, this is a “good three star” read. There were many delightful moments full of magic, humor, and delight. I just wish that the worldbuilding and character development had been a bit stronger.