Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

It seems that right now I only want to write reviews for things that are set to be posted in a few weeks, ho-hum. I mean, it's not that I didn't like this book, on the contrary I enjoyed it from the very first snippets I tried on Tor, although I had to be careful that I didn't read this book and A Darker Shade of Magic back to back since I wasn't sure how similar their settings would be. They are quite different it turns out, DSoM feels like a more generic fantasy even though it revolves specifically around the city of London. However, SttC revolves around England itself, a real England where you can't describe it with just one color. 

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Chou

Following the death of his adopted father, former slave Zacharias has inherited the position of Sorcerer Royale and begins his auspicious career with a crisis unlike anything his predecessors have faced: England is losing her magic and fast. Accepted by almost none of the white magicians who would gladly take the position and staff for themselves, Zacharias has to explore any possibility of restoring England's magical glory and yet it seems as if the magical situation in England is even more complicated than he expected, as "gentlewitch" Prunella can certainly attest to.

I know that for a lot of people, regency-era books (especially Pride and Prejudice style ones) are a comfort food of sorts. I wouldn't say this is quite true for me, even after adjusting the criteria to be "regency-era stories with magic" I still wouldn't say it, as odd as it sounds I find the more complicated stories the most comforting. But this book was a bit more complicated than most comparable ones I've read (the first two series that spring to mind are Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate+related series and Mary Robinette Kowal's books) since it actually had non-white leads! Honestly, if you say the series had one, two, or even three leads you could still say it had all non-white leads* which I'm sad to say I don't stumble across often in any of my books. But for a story set in a historical period where the prevailing response from authors and readers alike is "well there just weren't that many non-white British etc in places of power like where I placed my characters" and similar, yes it's very nice that I don't have to read a book and do mental aerobatics trying to figure out if there really was no way to diversify the book more or if the author is less open than they say. Not having to worry about that and instead having the text itself truly address and explore these ideas certainly makes it more comfort food-like since I don't have to think as much! 

And let's be honest, this is a fantasy novel. I've been thinking about a line I heard recently about the Hamilton musical, namely that by recasting all but one of the major (white) characters with non-white leads it has provided a deeper connection to history for some of the actors (who have admitted this, I'm not putting words in their mouths) and I think this is also a great argument for fiction in general^.

So yes, from it's very beginning, this is a story about multiple characters who live in a nuanced, complicated world, ie a realistic one where there is also magic. The fact that Zacharias is black does not mean that he automatically sympathizes with Prunella and the other gentlewitches, he is horrified at the lengths her school goes to restrain their magic but he still views Prunella as a project at first, a chance to try something new with magic and to present to the other magicians for their approval (and Prunella certainly views Zacharias as a means to a goal at this point as well). The story does suffer from a few pacing problems and obfuscates some plot points as if they knew there was a reader following them which felt like inelegant writing. But by and large, yes I could buy into the fact that the side characters were rather large bigots. It was no stretch of the imagination to for me to believe that yes, a lot of the plot stemmed from characters in the British government failing, and probably not wanting, to realize that the world is complicated and not made in their own image and therefore arrogantly failing to take appropriate action. Zacharias and Prunella are interesting characters, neither is what you would call scheming but they both have multiple plans and plots in action at all times and those complications made them feel very human indeed. I think there's a lot to like for fans of both character dramas and plot-driven stories, this review on Tor dives a bit more into the character drama and hopefully helps convince a few more folks to try the book out!

*(African, half-Indian I believe, and Southeast Asian, I also got the impression that all of them are too dark to pass as purely White British)
^no I'm not coming down from my soapbox, I rather like the view from up here