Nevertheless, Jonathan Strange, in which two upper class English magicians try to use their abilities to advance their nation's interests during the Napoleonic Wars, is as political as they come. As the magicians try to redefine magic as something fundamentally English--and thus a tool of England's imperial expansion--they fail to notice the toll it takes on women, people of color, and people of lower class, or indeed to acknowledge that such people have magical power of their own. The novel's ending, in which one of its leads prophetically announces that "England is full of magicians," seems to presage a profound change in its world, alongside the return of magic and re-wilding of England, in which the existing social order is upended. But Clarke has also been criticized for not giving enough space to characters who are not white, upper class men, even as she acknowledges that this absence is a flaw in her protagonists' worldview--there are no female or non-white magicians in the novel, and the one lower-class character who practices magic often feels as if his own story has been pushed aside by the two main characters'.
Zen Cho's debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (following her exceptional short story collection Spirits Abroad, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons last year), feels like both an homage and a response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Its setting is virtually identical to Clarke's novel: England in the late 18th century, in a world in which the normal progression of history has coincided with the development of magical abilities. The style, an arch pastiche of early 19th century fiction in the vein of Jane Austen, similarly recalls Clarke. As in Jonathan Strange, the source of magic in this world is fairies--though Cho expands on Clarke's use of English folklore; in her world, the fairylands of different nations exist side by side on another plane of existence from ours, which allows her to incorporate magical creatures from the mythology of her native Malaysia, as well as familiar faces like Titania and Oberon. The fading of magic is an important question in both novels, as well as an ending in which magic is reintroduced to England, with unpredictable results. But Cho has quite deliberately and consciously cast as the protagonists of her story a black man (who is also a former slave), and a biracial woman, whose social status, right to use magic, and very Englishness are constantly called into question.
Zacharias Wythe is the titular Sorcerer to the Crown, a role he inherited from his adoptive father Sir Stephen Wythe, who purchased and freed him as a child after recognizing his magical talent. Sir Stephen hoped that by nurturing Zacharias's considerable gifts, he might explode the belief that only white people are capable of practicing magic. It is thus up to Zacharias to "prove" his race's abilities and right to participate in civil society, which naturally complicates his role as Sorcerer Royal, the man responsible for ensuring England's well-being on the magical plane. The resentment and scheming against Zacharias by jealous and racist colleagues is only intensified by the fact that English magic is fading, and that the fairy court has refused to allow English magicians to engage the services of familiars, who give them access to greater power and abilities. On his way to investigate the cause of the drop of magical "resource," Zacharias stops at a school for young witches, where he encounters Prunella Gentleman, the quasi-ward of the headmistress, someone who has been tolerated because of her general competence and agreeable nature, but whose mixed-race heritage means that her social status is always precarious. When an incident at the school causes Prunella's benefactress to downgrade her to the role of servant, the outraged young woman decides to seek out her own fortune, and seizes on Zacharias as a means of getting to London and launching herself into polite society.
The scenes at the girls' school give Cho her first opportunity to use her fantastic premise to reflect and discuss real-world prejudices. A school for magical young ladies (or "gentlewitches," as they are called here) is not, as we might imagine, devoted to helping them develop their magical talent, but rather to teaching them how to suppress it, because using magic is considered unladylike: "Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint." The official dogma of the English magical establishment, in fact, holds that women are too weak to control and handle magic, but behind the scenes, magic is practiced by all genders, so long as they do it in the right way and for the right reasons.
Zacharias had seen too many hags in kitchens and nurseries, too many herbwomen and hedgewitches in villages around the country, not to know that women were perfectly capable of magic--at least, women of the laboring classes. Among their betters it was genteel to turn a blind eye to such illicit activities. One would not like one's own wife or daughter to indulge in witchcraft, but it did not serve to be overscrupulous when feminine magic could prove so convenient in one's servants.In other words, Cho is using magic as a metaphor for work, and for the double standard that takes it for granted that working class women can do backbreaking, day-long labor, but upper class women are too delicate to handle the kind of work that their husbands and brothers do. That the girls in Mrs. Daubeney's school frequently break out in displays of uncontrollable magic feels like a reference to every novel and movie about the overheated, hysterical atmosphere at such schools, where girls are sent to have their wildness trained out of them, only to feed on each other's repressed emotions and anxieties.
Paradoxically, it is Prunella's race, and the precarious position it imposes on her, that allows her to escape this trap. Neither a young lady, nor a servant, nor a real daughter to Mrs. Daubeney, she has a certain kind of freedom to break the rules (as Zacharias later says of himself "There are advantages to being outcast ... One is set at liberty from many anxieties. There is no call to worry about what others will think, when it is clear that they already think the worst"). When Zacharias, who is already shocked by the punishing methods Mrs. Daubeney is employing to train the magic out of her students, discovers that Prunella has tremendous magical abilities, he seizes on her as his own counterpart--someone who will prove to society that women can do high-level magic, just as he has proven that it is possible for black people to do the same. Prunella, meanwhile, is less interested in becoming a magician than in securing her own social and financial independence. She agrees to submit to Zacharias's training, but only if he provides her an entrée into society so that she can find a husband.
Much as it owes to and references Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in the scenes in which Prunella and Zacharias clash about the wisdom and propriety of her plan to travel with him to London, it becomes clear that Sorcerer to the Crown has another, powerful antecedent, the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer. The similarity only becomes clearer when the two arrive in London, and Prunella repeatedly steamrolls Zacharias's objections to her plan to present herself to high society as the mysterious daughter of an unnamed but supposedly wealthy gentleman. It's a premise that repeats in several of Heyer's novel (the one I'm familiar with is Cotillion)--a determined, headstrong, unscrupulous-yet-basically-good young woman who is willing to do anything to achieve her place in society, and who imposes on a more proper, bewildered man through the simple expedient of refusing to take no for an answer. Much of the novel's humor--and this is a deeply funny novel--comes from scenes that seem to channel Heyer, in which Prunella turns her laser-like focus and considerable ingenuity not to her magical training, but to questions of fashion, social standing, and matchmaking.
It had been her intention to avoid Zacharias if she could, since she presumed he was at the Ball, but in fact when she saw him she was so consumed by disaster that she hurried towards him, grateful to see a familiar face.The basic conceit of Heyer novels like Cotillion is that a person with very little social capital or standing--women, and usually women with little financial wherewithal--attaches themselves to someone who has both, using them as a stepping stone to respectability and a chance at a good match (before, of course, falling in love). Her heroines get to ignore propriety--the rules that say that they are compromising themselves by being around their reluctant rescuers, or the mores that frown on social-climbing and husband-hunting--because they know that those rules were created to keep them subservient and maintain a social order that they could never escape by behaving properly. The fact that Zacharias and Prunella are both people of color complicates this story, because though Zacharias is privileged, in some ways, by his gender and wealth, he is also more disadvantaged by his race than Prunella, and more specifically by the combination of his race and gender. It might, in some circumstances, be more acceptable for a woman of color to marry into high society, than for a black former slave to achieve high rank and office through his own abilities--the latter might pose more of a challenge to the racist underpinnings of Regency society.
"Mr. Wythe, what is to be done?" she exclaimed. "Mak Genggang assured me that the sky knew these things, but it is clear to me that the sky knows nothing of high society, and I wish I had never come! It was very unwise--indeed, it is nothing less than a disaster!"
"I cannot but agree," said Zacharias. "But if you think so, why did you come?"
Prunella was too troubled to attend. "Only look at my dress!" she said. "To think of wearing hoop skirts and silk taffeta when every other young female is in white muslin! I do not know if the sky meant to be disobliging, or if it is merely ignorant. Surely it must have seen that this not at all the thing. I look a very guy!"
That Zacharias and Prunella have such different reactions to that racism, and such different experiences in Regency society, is, however, only partly due to their genders or wealth. In part, it's simply down to the fact that they are such different people, and one of the most interesting things that Sorcerer to the Crown does is to suggest that different people can experience racism and prejudice in very different ways, even in the same setting. Zacharias is, as one of his friends says, "the most nice-conscienced, duty-bound fellow," devoted to the memory of his benefactor, even as he struggles with resentment of Sir Stephen, for separating Zacharias from his parents, and for being the representative of the very system that enslaved them in the first place. As he says, he is "held by bonds of gratitude," and in addition, by bonds of respectability--having had it drummed into him since childhood that he represents his race and their ability to participate fully in society, Zacharias is unsurprisingly studied and careful in his behavior and reactions. He suppresses his anger and resentment of the racism and suspicion that greet him, while at the same time, Prunella simply steamrolls over them by refusing to admit their existence--and by questioning the importance of the institutions and conventions that Zacharias is devoted to.
Though fascinating, the profound differences between Zacharias and Prunella, and how they deal with racism, are also the source of the novel's most significant imbalance. The fact that the rules seem so different for them can make it hard to feel that they are part of the same story, and the fact that the emotional registers of their plot strands are so different can lead to feelings of whiplash. Zacharias gets most of the novel's affecting, gut-punching moments--for example when we realize that, for all that his English contemporaries see him as a foreigner, to actual foreigners, be they fairies or people of color from other parts of the world, he is a European, and thus doesn't belong anywhere. But at the same time, his determination to be respectable and not give into anger means that he is an essentially passive character, while Prunella is constantly acting on both his and her own behalf. Cho is clearly making a point by juxtaposing such different characters with such different stories, whose problems nevertheless derive from the same place--and who are able to find in each other a friend who can understand their predicament--but the balance between the two characters, their stories, and their approaches to the challenges facing them feels a little wobbly.
I haven't, in fact, said much about the actual plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, which involves, aside from the already-discussed question of England's dwindling magic supply, a plot to supplant Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal, another plot to assassinate him, and a delegation from the island of Janda Baik, which throws Zacharias and Prunella into the path of Mak Genggang, a powerful, no-nonsense Malaysian witch who injects a great deal of humor into the novel, as well as a reminder that the characters' obsessions, both magical and cultural, are only the parochial concerns of one tiny corner of the world. All of these elements tie together in a way that is satisfying, but perhaps a little too neat and easy--one never really fears that the dangers facing our heroes will come to pass, because the heart of the novel is clearly less in these elements, and more in the comedy of manners surrounding Prunella's introduction to society, and the difficulties that she and Zacharias have navigating that society as people of color. In that sense, it's possible that the Heyer plot grates against Cho's choice of genre and story, because the fundamental attribute of a Heyer novel is that no one in it takes its events very seriously, whereas Sorcerer to the Crown ultimately concludes that its events are of utmost importance to England (though even then, not all the time--in the book's climactic fight scene between a dragon and a sea monster, the two turn out to be distant cousins, and pause their battle to do a bit of genealogy).
In its conclusion, however, Sorcerer to the Crown seems to use the disconnect between the tones of Zacharias and Prunella's stories--and their worldviews--to make a powerful statement against Zacharias's approach of appeasement and careful respectability. Prunella turns out to have an amazing magical heritage, which allows her to take center stage in the English magical political system--a role to which, the novel implies, she is far more suited than Zacharias, because she doesn't share his obsession with "proving" that she is worthy of respect, but simply demands it. The same unscrupulousness that makes it possible for her to shake off racism and the norms of polite behavior in her pursuit of social status, solidifies into something more serious, and a great deal scarier, when Prunella shows that she is willing to do whatever it takes to assume power. To cement her power, and save Zacharias, she must take a ruthless, cold-blooded course of action, one that shocks the men around her. There is the potential for a troubling reading here--the fact that Prunella is able to make this kind of sacrifice, or that Mak Genggang advises Zacharias, after he defeats a political rival, to "set fire to his house, too, and sell his children to pirates," can be taken as saying that these two women of color are inherently more bloodthirsty than the "civilized" white men around them. It might have been good if the novel had more strongly stressed the point that the same English gentlemen who are scandalized by Prunella's actions are complicit in, and benefit from, acts of cruelty that dwarf hers--most obviously, the slave trade. But even without that reminder from Cho, it's easy to realize that Prunella is merely bringing an already existing cruelty to the surface, using it to protect people of color for once instead of victimizing them.
This is, perhaps, to make Sorcerer to the Crown sound more serious than it actually is. This is still a comedic, romantic novel, the kind of story that ends with a marriage proposal, and a fun, impeccably stylish read that recreates the tone of Heyer's novels perfectly. That tone isn't always perfectly balanced with Cho's use of it as a delivery system for a darker, more serious discussion of slavery and colonialism, and ultimately this, as well as the too-neat resolution of many of its plot strands, leaves the novel feeling a little scattershot--still, perhaps, a little too indebted to its inspirations, both Clarke and Heyer. (Some of this might be addressed in later volumes in the projected trilogy of which Sorcerer is the first volume, but I have to admit that, much as I enjoyed it, I should have been happier if it were a standalone volume.) Nevertheless, Sorcerer to the Crown's response to and development of the ideas raised in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is impeccable--and necessary--and despite some shakiness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I've been looking forward to Cho's work ever since I first read her short stories three or four years ago, and hoping that someone would pick up the threads raised in Clarke's novel and do something more with them for nearly a decade. It's a delight, and not really a surprise, to find both coming from the same source.