Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Zacharias Wythe has a lot on his hands: he’s the newly instated Sorcerer Royal, people are accusing him of murdering his mentor and predecessor, and the magic of England is dwindling for unknown reasons. He goes off to the border between England and Fairyland to investigate and in the process, meets Prunella Gentleman, a powerful young woman with a mysterious past. Together they will change the face of thaumaturgy and magic in England.
If I had known that both of the main characters of this book were POC, I would have read it earlier. It wasn’t readily apparent from the book blurb, so I didn’t realize it until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to this book.
I’m not altogether unfamiliar with Regency fantasy. I read Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecilia series years ago and enjoyed the books. Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t really YA, though, and it has a different approach to the genre. Namely, instead of the usual white British protagonists, we have a Black man and a biracial Indian woman front and center.
Sorcerer to the Crown refutes the idea that historical fantasy based on the real world has to be white. POC existed in that time, and it’s only their erasure from history that makes people think they didn’t. It also challenges the belief that historical fiction can only reproduce but not criticize the prevailing social norms of its setting.
Far from side-stepping the issue of race, Sorcerer to the Crown actively engages in critical commentary on the dominant racial attitudes of the time. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers consists only of white men until Zacharias is brought forth by his mentor, Sir Stephen. He publicly proves himself more than capable of advanced magic; however, that does not deter many of the bigots from questioning his competency because of his skin color.
The book addresses all the subtleties and nuances of being the only POC in a white-dominated environment. For example, Zacharias feels the fear associated with having to act as a representative of his entire race. He experiences stereotype threat at first. He has a complicated relationship with Sir Stephen, whom he respects and loves as a father figure and mentor but also resents as someone who was torn away from his birth parents and at times treated more like a curiosity or pet than a child. He faces rumors that he didn’t become the Sorcerer Royal by just means. He is blamed for the decline in ambient magic levels in England.
Prunella’s experiences are shaped by the intersection of race and gender. Not only is she a POC, she’s a woman of color. Even outside the realm of magic, she is viewed through a prejudiced lens, assumed to be a morally depraved and sexually “indecent” woman. The white men of the magical establishment barely deign to recognize the magical skills of upper class white women, who are forced to purge themselves of any magic “for their own good,” let alone a biracial brown woman. The idea that she might be trained in sorcery is absurd to the Society members.
But train her Zacharias does, to both their benefits. While everyone else is making a fuss plotting to have Zacharias removed from his position and even killed, he and Prunella are working together to fix issue of the missing magic and avoid diplomatic disasters for the Crown.
Aside from tackling race and gender, the book also calls out classism. The Society members are all gentlemen from prestigious, “well-bred” families, and they largely disdain the magical spells of the working class as inferior and unsophisticated, even though objectively speaking they’re no less artful or intricately constructed than those of the rich. Zacharias doesn’t have his head too far up his ass to realize this, so he has a mind to reform not only the gender restrictions but also the class restrictions on becoming thaumaturges.
I’ll be honest and say the beginning was slow and hard to get through, but once I adjusted to the old-fashioned writing style, it was smoother sailing. The dialogue is witty and the magical elements original. I really loved the dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella, and the supporting characters were a diverse lot with their own charms. The last half definitely picked up a lot in terms of pacing, and the ending was a blast. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. The only thing that was missing from this book was queerness and disability rep.
Recommendation: Highly recommended! If you like historical fantasy with an explicitly social justice bent, this book is perfect for you.