I had a lot of fun with this fantasy of manners, featuring a pair of minority protagonists in an alternate Napoleonic Wars-era England. Initially I was skeptical to see yet another fantasy novel with this particular setting: recent years have produced a great number of them, from the fantastic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, to the wonderfully fun His Majesty's Dragon, to uninspired Jane Austen ripoffs like Shades of Milk and Honey. Of the three, Sorcerer to the Crown is most like His Majesty’s Dragon (and I would certainly recommend it to fans of Temeraire), but it reminds me most of the historical romances of Georgette Heyer. This book is not primarily concerned with romance, but Heyer’s influence is evident in the writing, especially the dialogue, and in the characters whose energy and colorful personalities seem at odds with their society’s strict rules of propriety.
Zacharias Wythe has newly risen to the office of Britain’s chief sorcerer, to the chagrin of many of his colleagues, who object to a black man’s holding that position. To complicate matters further, England is running out of magic, and no one knows why. Prunella Gentleman is a young woman of mixed race, who grew up in a “school” intended to teach women not to use magic, for the same reasons women in history weren’t supposed to engage in intellectual activity (of the “too taxing for women’s frail bodies” variety). But the outspoken Prunella discovers a treasure and is determined to use it to her best advantage.
Much of the plot involves societal machinations and people being mannerly, so readers more accustomed to action-oriented fantasy may find it slow, but I expect it will be a hit with those who enjoy historical fiction as well. I found it to move quickly, with a style – for all that it is reminiscent of period writing – that is effortlessly readable. Not all the plot elements stand up to close scrutiny (Mrs. Daubeney never bothered to examine the valise that had been so precious to her dead boarder, in whom she was romantically interested?), but it is an enjoyable story that allows the protagonists to show their mettle, and it pulled me in quickly. The villains are dealt with perhaps too easily and haphazardly – action-oriented climaxes to fantasies of manners are always chancy – but the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. It works as a standalone, although there is apparently a trilogy planned.
Cho does an excellent job at balancing humor with serious themes; it is a funny book and one that doesn’t take itself or its characters too seriously, even while it deals with race, gender, and colonialism. But the characters have little complexity, and often read like archetypes spouting humorously formal dialogue. I quite liked Zacharias, but never figured out Prunella. Her only consistent trait seems to be outrageousness; otherwise, she alternates between practicality and ambition and frivolity, and her goals and motivations are often unclear. When, after we are told she loves magic and see her make a great effort to set out on her own, she suddenly announces a desire to marry to advantage and as soon as possible, it was as much a surprise to me as to Zacharias. Not understanding who this character is or what she wants made it difficult to relate to her story or enjoy the inevitable romance.
However, that is not a fatal flaw in an entertaining and funny story. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fantasy, and do expect to read the sequel when it is released.