In recent years, when I go looking for a book, I don't immediately reach for fantasy, so most books of that genre which I read must end up being given to me by somebody.
Such is the case with Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho's 2015 debut novel.
Many people have described Sorcerer to the Crown as: "Harry Potter meets Jane Austen," which certainly captures the idea nicely, but I think an alternate description might be: "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from an Asian-feminist perspective."
Cho is a Londoner of Malaysian heritage, and she brings that background to bear quite nicely, introducing a certain grace as well as a certain exotic flair to her story that lifts it quite above the smoky sturdiness of Susanna Clarke's wonderful work.
As with any fine work of literature, Sorcerer to the Crown isn't really what it appears to be on the surface. As it tells its story of young warlocks and witches making their way through finishing school, spring ball, and London society, it is really exploring many deeper issues of caste, race, gender, religion, and (of course: this is a novel about England) Imperialism.
So our hero, the Sorcerer to the Crown himself, is a freed slave; our heroine is a young East Asian woman; and our villians include stuffy old-money snobs, misogynist dictators, and jealous rivals.
Some fantasies would make the magic the center point, with lots of spell-weaving and dramatic displays. Cho instead wisely wields this tool with a very light touch, using such events only a handful of times, and spending most of her energy on simple, human interactions and interests:
"I desire to speak to your King," said Mak Genggang. "You had best bring me to him straightaway -- and no dillydallying, if you please, for the fate of the nation depends on it!"
"Good gracious," said Prunella, staring. "But what dreadful thing is it that is going to befall us?"
"I have befallen you," said Mak Genggang. "I was not referring to Britain, however. I was speaking of what is of rather more importance: the fate of my nation, which your King seeks to bully!"
"If you will permit me to say so, ma'am, I believe there is a misunderstanding," said Zacharias. "Our King has no wish to alienate you, and I am sure would regret any inadvertent offence."
"If he had no wish to offend, he ought not to have lent his ear to Raja Ahmad!" retorted Mak Genggang. "A sovereign ought to learn better judgment of character. It must be clear to anyone with their wits about them that the raja is a fool. But then again" -- her eyes gleamed -- "I suppose it serves your King's purpose to treat with fools!"
All of this could have been right out of any work of Austen or Dickens, were it not for the fact that Mak Genggang is the sort-of Mother Superior of the witches coven of the Malaysian island of Janda Baik, but as you can see you hardly even notice that during the exchange.
So when Cho does decide to deploy her tools of magic, they come through as wonderous interludes that delight and amaze, even if they are still somehow solidly rooted in the peculiar dignities of English social customs:
Lord Burrow gave him an incredulous look, but with the advent of the thunder-monster the sea had been thrown into even greater tumult. The sheets of rain falling unbroken from the sky seemed as though they would cause a second Flood. The strivings of Mrs. Midsomer and the thunder-monster so infused the place with magic that every wave bore a crest of green foam, every magician was outlined in light and the opaque vault of the sky was a livid green, reflecting the unearthly glow of the battle below.
"Damn your impudence!" said Lord Burrow. "Do you mean to blackmail me at such a time as this?"
There may be magicians everywhere, but a stuffy aristocrat is still a stuffy aristocrat. Damn your impudence, indeed.
Cho's book is a delight, and she is a wondrous talent. Every writer needs a spark, and every great novel needs various mechanisms and stage props to tell its story, so I certainly can't condemn her for resorting to a bit of a gimmick ("what if I told a classic English novel of manners, updated with modern concerns, but the main characters were actual magicians?") to frame her work.
Still, I must admit to the slightest bit of disappointment: she's clearly capable of something truly great, and Sorcerer to the Crown, while thoroughly charming and enjoyable and undeniably well-performed, is just not that work of true greatness.
Congratulations on your great start, Ms Cho. Now, please, show us what you are really capable of, next.