Normally if you say “Regency Fantasy” to me I wouldn’t be very interested, despite having liked quite a few regency fantasies before. And if you said Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Georgette Heyer to me, I probably would have avoided the book. (Not because I didn’t think either are good, but because I usually don’t have any patience for the language, or the slowness) So Sorcerer to the Crown wasn’t quite up my alley, but I was very much looking forward to it because (1) Zen Cho wrote it, and (2) I seem to recall an early review on GoodReads that mentioned “Malaysian vampires”. Pontianaks in (alternate) historical England? THAT I must read!
And I’m very glad that I did read it, because it turned out to be one of my favourite fantasies this year. (Also, the pontianaks are from Malacca. This interests me greatly because my family is from Malacca.)
First of all, the book does awesome work at handling race and gender issues – two things that are often concerns in historical fiction/films/etc. The main character, Zacharias Wythe, is a freed slave and the first and only black sorcerer in England. He also happens to be the Royal Sorcerer, even if many of his fellow sorcerers refuse to acknowledge him as such. The other main character is Prunella Gentleman, a half-Indian woman who reminded me somewhat of Sophie Hatter, except that she’s MUCH more ruthless. And – and! – the other main character (sort of) is an old Malay woman named Mak Genggang, and a bomoh (magic user, something like a shaman) to boot.
Upon becoming the new Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias not only face opposition from his colleagues, but also finds that he has to solve the problem of England’s dwindling magical source. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s summoned by the Government to aid Sultan Ahmad of Janda Baik, Malacca fight a war against the witches and pontianaks of his country. Zacharias refused, not wanting to start a magical war. When he meets Prunella, however, and visits Fairyland, the source of England’s magic, he learns that everything might be connected after all.
While it touches on the issues of colonialism, race and feminism, Sorcerer to the Crown is really a light read, and a rather funny one. Sometimes I did find myself wanting certain issues to be highlighted more (one of them being a spoiler related to Prunella’s past) but I liked that it did not oversimplify things, either. Zacharias is grateful for Sir Stephen, the person who freed, trained and raised him, but it doesn’t stop him from wondering about the fate of his biological parents, and of what the English did to his people. And as loyal as he is to the crown, it doesn’t stop him from recognising the terrible things people do for the sake of power/patriotism, or from questioning the status quo.
Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies – too potent a brew for their weak minds – and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.
Yet 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 labouring 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.
I love the combination of lore from different cultures (I was absolutely delighted with the kirin and the garuda, because the former was one of my favourite creatures back in high school, and I kind of had an obsession with garuda movies in primary school), which I thought was AWESOME but also a little strange. Strange because some of the elements are strictly “fantasy” to me – Fairyland, elves, etc – while others are so normal that they didn’t feel fantastical, like the bomohs and familiars. Although I always thought of “familiars” as pets kept by witches/magicians rather than being makhluk halus (fine folk), so I didn’t catch on to it until Mak Genggang refers to familiars as “irreligious”, and I went, oh.
Because, you see, I grew up hearing stories about neighbours that “kept spirits” (that was how it was always referred to), or people that inherited spirits they didn’t want, or people bespelled by bomohs. My great-aunt was always telling me about not spending too much time near the trees or the forest (during the year we lived right next to one) because some of them ate children, and some of them just liked kidnapping humans. Of course, we are now modern enough that a lot of Malaysians think of these as mere superstitions, but the fact remains that I grew up with these stories, and they’re so much a part of ordinary life that reading them in a fantasy novel made the book more “normal” rather than more fantastic, if that made any sense. I felt the same way reading Spirits Abroad; I loved the stories, but they didn’t quite feel like fantasy fiction to me.
But I guess that’s really just me. And because recognising these things in a book is such a rare thing, I ended up loving the book so much more. I don’t know if my post is coherent enough to properly recommend the book, but seriously – read it.
I’m looking forward to the next book!
- Rollo! And Georgiana Without Ruth! (What a great name) I love them and who/what they turned out to be 😀
- That pink dress Prunella wears when she crashes a ball reminds me so much of Kaylee in Firefly ❤
- I really liked the scenes with Mr. Hsiang in the book because it reminded me of this:
4. You know Sultan Ahmad? Well, he is the Raja Ahmad in the legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang, a local lore in which his father (Sultan Mahmud) attempted to court a magical (fairy) princess from Gunung Ledang who can take many forms, each more beautiful than the last. She gave him seven impossible requests to fulfill for her hand in marriage. Sultan Mahmud managed all of the first six gifts, and was prepared to kill his son for the seventh item, which was a bowl of Raja Ahmad’s blood. However, before Sultan Mahmud managed to sacrifice his son, the princess appeared before him, angered that he would stoop so low as to kill his own son. She showed him each of her manifestations before disappearing, never to be heard of again. Also, Sultan Ahmad only ruled for three years – Sultan Mahmud ended up killing his son anyway and taking the throne again.