Friday, 2 October 2015

This Gentleman's A Lady

An indelibly enchanting Regency-era adventure casts its spell on readers

So London-based Malaysian author Zen Cho published a work of fantasy titled Sorcerer to the Crown and everyone lost their minds. Sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal said "This is the book I wish I'd written. SUCH a fantastic use of language. So good. SO GOOD."

Award-winning American sci-fi/fantasy author Ann Leckie says those partial to Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian "or magic and humor like Susanna Clarke ... you will really, really enjoy this!" Justine Larbalestier, another award-winning author, "would marry this book if I could."

Go, get the book now. Do I need to say anything else?

Well, if you insist.

Pride, prejudice and persons thaumaturgical
The Regency era in the United Kingdom (1811–1820) was characterised by the rule of George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, as Prince Regent until he took the throne as King George IV.

In Cho's world, where magic exists and supernatural creatures share our borders, this was around the time England's mages are having problems casting spells. For their own reasons, the faeries have blocked the flow of magic into the kingdom.

Not a good time, particularly when the ruler of one tiny far-flung corner of the world needs help. Relations with France aren't good (have they ever been?) Plus, the muggles in the government are thinking of stripping the magicians of their privileges.

And I thought the water shortages in the Klang Valley were bad.

Thrust into this mess is Zacharias Wythe, England's Sorcerer Royal, whose responsibilities now include getting the magic flowing into the kingdom again. Thing is, his colleagues think he's unsuited for the role. Somebody wants him dead. He's even accused of killing his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, for the top job.

Zach (let's call him that) is getting all this love because he is black. As a boy he was adopted by Sir Stephen and trained in magic, but making him his successor was way beyond the pale for many.

Because Malaysians from the diaspora are prone to fits of flag-waving when deprived of their sambal, Cho throws some local flavour into the mix as well. During a visit by the Sultan of the island of Janda Baik (said ruler of that tiny far-flung corner of the world), an old Malay witch called Mak Genggang appears, Sauron-like, in Zach's crystal ball and makes some nasty remarks about the ruler. But the crone doesn't stop there...

(Janda Baik is also a village in modern-day Pahang. The scryers at Google suggest it's a scenic rural getaway.)

Respite for Zach comes when a friend of a friend needs someone to present a speech at a school for "gentlewitches" where young ladies are taught to repress their magical gifts for their own good. So it's kind of funny when he ends up walking into a sorcerous catfight between two students upon his arrival.

Zach's attention, however, is drawn to Prunella Gentleman (not just because she's pretty), a half-Indian girl and essentially the school dogsbody, who is deflecting an irate girl's hexes with some expertise.

Prue's natural talent for spellcasting inspires Zach to work on bringing female magicians into the mainstream, starting with her. So she follows him to London and, naturally, gets tangled up in his job to fix Britain's magic deficit – and the plot to unseat him as Sorcerer Royal.

Of course, things wouldn't be half as exciting for everyone if Prue didn't have something revelatory lurking in her past and her late father's hand luggage.

It's a lady's world
Readers unfamiliar with the Regency style might conclude that this novel was written thus to hide minor plot holes and structural flaws and glam up what might sound mundane if penned in 21st-century parlance - even if she is putting to use all that reading steeped in the period in which the novel is set.

And yes, the faeries' embargo of magic. They have a reason for that, but the way it was carried out was ... clumsy? Not though through? Happens when a race relies too much on magic rather than brains to fix things.

And when the mastermind and motives behind the attempts at Zach's life are revealed, how that part was resolved veers dangerously towards bathos, thanks to what I'd consider a deus ex machina.

Still, you can't help but admire how Cho pulled it off. Nor can one dismiss the novel's feminist vibes. There's enough wit, humour, dumb male behaviour and smart female behaviour to keep the pages flipping, even if the turns of phrase are a little tedious.

Fiercely independent Prue is a wickedly delightful lady, as is Mak Genggang, whose part in the plot and Prue's development as a sorceress steadily grows (though the former seems too genre-savvy for my liking). Even Zach's stepmom-of-sorts, Lady Maria Wythe, is a force to be reckoned with. But it's sad to see the poor Sorcerer Royal getting upstaged more and more towards the novel's end.

Despite not setting out to "write a 'message' novel", there seems to be some comment on how the West sees the East (no way that old Malay witch could hack into a Brit's crystal ball) and the illusion of Western superiority (oh yes, she did).

And, oh, the utter cringeworthiness in how the privileged abuse finite resources like magic. One bristles at the image of a bunch of dandies amusing themselves and wasting precious mystical reserves by making their reflections recite poetry.

I was wary of joining the growing choir of voices falling under Cho's spell and afraid the hype surrounding her debut was all smoke and mirrors. So I was glad to have enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown, though I don't think any book deserves offers of marriage in exchange for a good time.

And it ends nicely too, so I wonder if the saga of the Sorcerer Royal should be continued in future instalments. If so, Cho has her work cut out for her to top this effort.

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Ace Books (2015)
371 pages
ISBN: 978-0-425-28337-0


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