Zacharias Wythe is the Sorcerer Royal of England, that is he is the leader of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and advisor to the crown on England's magic related matters. As a Black man, former slave, and suspected murderer of the previous Sorcerer Royal and his adopted father Sir Stephen Wythe, there are plenty of people who think Zacharias Wythe does not deserve the position. Zacharias doesn't have time to worry about that however, for he has too many other pressing problems to deal with at the moment. England's source of magic is drying up, for one. Also, someone keeps trying, and luckily failing, to kill him. On top everything there is Prunella.
Zacharias meets Prunella Gentleman at a school for young ladies with magical tendencies. The school aims to teach the young ladies how to suppress their magic because in this Regency era society women are thought to be far to frail to handle the power of magic. There is a small exception - it's fine when servant women use a bit of magic to tidy the house, make a better pie, or otherwise better serve their employers. Beyond that women are not to do magic. Magic is reserved for men, specifically White, wealthy men. Being a member of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is as much a function of one's magical talent as it one's social standing. Women, poor people, and people of color need not apply. Zacharias is the exception partly because of his adopted father but mostly because he can wield the magical staff, which only a Sorcerer Royal can do. Prunella defies all expectations. Without much formal training she is one of the most powerful and naturally gifted sorcerers Zacharias has ever seen.
If Sorcerer to the Crown had a subtitle it might be something like, " How Microagressions Work." Zacharias is incredibly conscious of his position and how people view him. He's smart, talented, and Black. For many (but not all) in the Royal Society the last thing is the only thing that matters. Sure some people think he killed his father, but they only think that because they find it hard to believe that a Black man could have ever gained control of the magical staff without stealing it. People speak to Zacharias in ways they would not to a White man in his position. No matter how angry he feels, Zacharias knows he must his restrain himself. He must always act like gentleman even when people are not acting like one towards him for he is always on display. I appreciate that Cho did not shy away from race or try to make her story some sort of color blind society, but instead acknowledged it for what it was.
I also appreciated the tension between Zacharias and his adopted family. He truly loves Sir Stephen Wythe and Lady Wythe and is grateful for all they have given and done for him. He also knows they love him. Still there is a little nugget of tension arising from the fact that Sir Stephen took Zacharias away from his birth parents, he did not free Zacharias's birth parents, and Sir Stephen took a while before formerly freeing Zacharias from slavery. Similarly Prunella, a "half-caste" woman who was raised by her father's second wife after he died is grateful to her White stepmother. At the same time Prunella knows her stepmother does not consider her an equal in terms of social class.
Sorcerer to the Crown also addresses sexism in a clever way. At its heart this book is about ass-kicking, smart as a whip women. Prunella is hands down the best sorcerer in all of England. After Zacharias sees her perform a spell while trying to control a room full of schoolchildren, he realizes that the ban on women practicing magic is ridiculous and must change. There is also Mak Genggang, a witch who comes to England when England is threatening to meddle in the affairs of her homeland. She doesn't come to beg for help but to warn England of the consequences of doing anything that threatens the women of her land. Even one of the big villains ends up being a woman. In fact, much of the action involves men standing around debating what to do and watching helplessly as the women just get stuff done.
It was refreshing to read Sorcerer to the Crown. Zen Cho has done something really wonderful here. She has written a historical fantasy novel with diverse characters,
that addresses sexism and racism, and tells a fun story involving
magicians, killer fairies, dragons, and all sorts of other fantastical
creatures. Make no mistake - although the book tackles big issues it is not an "issue" story. It is a fantasy story that happens to have a diverse cast of characters and doesn't shy away from the fact that some groups of people are not treated equally. I would definitely recommend this to everyone, but especially to young women and young people of color. If you like fantasy or historical stories and wish you saw more people that look like you in them, then give Sorcerer to the Crown a try.