Ranked high among my favorite things in the world are the writings of Jane Austen and Susanna Clarke’s 800-page alt-history opus Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So you can imagine my excitement when the pre-publication hype and early reviews for Zen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown made copious comparisons to both Austen’s work and Clarke’s epic masterpiece. Add to that the knowledge that it also centered on a Black man and a mixed-race woman in a period that rarely granted people of color any time, agency, or a voice of their own—in reality or in fictional portrayals—and, much like Tor.com reviewer Alex Brown, I was most definitely sold.
The novel did not disappoint. Sorcerer to the Crown was by far my favorite book of 2015—and may even be on the short list of all-time favorites. Much to my delight, it feels like the Georgian/Regency period is gaining more and more traction in the fantasy genre, but at the same time, many stories set in the period often rely a bit too heavily on the preconceived tropes and mannerisms of the time, trying for the social depth of Austen and ending up with something more along the lines of the surface-level trappings of Georgette Heyer. Sorcerer is alternate history written with the insight (and hindsight) of the current era that still manages to stay true to its chosen historical period. Its characters and setting allow it to do what all the best fantasy stories do: to look at our current world through a particular lens and with a certain amount of distance. As much as fashion and manners may have changed since the 19th century, too many elements of the world have stayed the same, or shifted only slightly. The book’s nuanced critique of racism, sexism, and other still-prevalent issues have already been well analyzed elsewhere, and if you haven’t read the novel, you really should experience the plot firsthand to see just how fun and inventive it is. Rather than summarizing the novel as a whole, I want to take a look at a particular element of the story that I find especially fascinating and worth a closer study: Cho’s critique of family relationships and obligations.
[Warning: vague spoilers ahead.]
Our main protagonists—Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe and his apprentice/project/friend Prunella Gentleman—are initially presented, if not as opposites, at least as very different from one another. Zacharias is reserved and cautious while Prunella is bolder and more impulsive. They come from widely differing backgrounds and have profoundly different experiences. Yet they also have much in common, especially in the ways they both experience various levels of prejudice based on their status as non-white people in this version of Regency English society, which, aside from the presence of magic, is not presented as very different from the historical reality of the time in terms of race, class, and social norms. They also share some of the complex array of feelings that arise from being adopted, in one way or another, by white benefactors who may or may not have ulterior motives.
Family is always complicated. The relationships Zacharias and Prunella have with their respective guardians adds further layers of difficult feelings and complex obligations to the mix.
Zacharias was adopted at a young age by the Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe (the highest ranking English magician, or “thaumaturge” in the tonier language of the time) and his wife Maria because he showed promising skill as a magician. The child of slaves, Zacharias is not even eight years old when he is taken before the ranking magicians of England to prove his talent—and thus provide proof of the magical potential of his entire race. Prunella is raised by someone much less influential and in a more mundane, non-magical set of circumstances. Prunella’s father (a white Englishman) died when she was a baby and she has no knowledge of her mother—beyond the fact that, based on Prunella’s appearance, she was not white (and by the racist assumptions of the time, likely not “respectable”). She is not officially adopted so much as “taken in” by Mrs. Daubeney, the headmistress of a school for young women who show (alarming, potentially embarrassing) signs of magical talent that their wealthy parents believe should be repressed. Where Zacharias is carefully taught and encouraged in his abilities, Prunella’s considerable skills are generally ignored and treated as an inconvenience (except when they happen to be helpful to the household), since, unsurprisingly, women are not supposed to practice magic in this version of Regency society.
As early as the first chapter, we get insight into Zacharias’ mixed feelings about his situation and his adopted family. Lady Wythe is immediately shown to be a kind, soft-hearted, and supportive mother figure. The stern but well-respected Sir Stephen has passed away only a few months before the start of the story, though that doesn’t stop him from haunting Zacharias, quite literally. Just a few pages after these initial impressions, we are made aware of the fear that has plagued Zacharias from his earliest childhood: the fear that if he should fail to please—if he isn’t always on his best behavior and tractable to the demands made on him—he will be rejected and cast out, sent back to where he came from. This fear has mostly abated following his guardian’s death and his (reluctant) inheritance of the prestigious role of Sorcerer Royal. However, that doesn’t mean that initial insecurity hasn’t left a considerable and lasting impression, leaving him mired in a difficult mix of gratitude and resentment that he must come to terms with over the course of the story.
Prunella’s upbringing is less privileged, but also perhaps less rigid and pressurized. As the ward of a respectable widow with a school that teaches young women of higher social status, Prunella is not deprived of creature comforts, but neither is she granted any real standing or position. Essentially, she occupies a governess-like liminal position in the school: not a servant yet not a lady. She is expected to do certain menial jobs while also being granted some small amount of authority over the students and privileges within the household. She often complies with Mrs. Daubeney’s demands out of gratitude and affection—and not without some of her signature sass.
Based on what we learn about their childhoods, neither Prunella nor Zacharias were adopted out of purely altruistic motives, and this is where the realities of racism and the family relationships dovetail. The white people that take them in expect a certain level of gratitude and compliance from them in return—whether this is stated outright or simply intuited and internalized by Zacharias or Prunella is beside the point. They feel the pressure and expectations from the people and society around them, regardless of whether this is entirely intentional on the part of their guardians. Zacharias deals with this pressure by leaning into expectations and shouldering the burdens placed on him. He occasionally finds his own ways to rebel and forge his own path, but his journey to adulthood and the choices he makes are indelibly shaped by his childhood desire to please—his obligation to perform as he is expected. By contrast, Prunella takes her future into her own hands, leaves her adopted home behind, and rejects a future of servitude—with immense (and often hilarious) consequences for herself, Zacharias, and the magical world at large.
This singular focus on familial relationships and obligation—a facet of the story that is both clearly delineated and also secondary to everything else in the book, really—may seem like an odd fixation in a novel whose primary concern is simply to tell a great story, one full of magic and drama and humor. My fascination with the way fiction handles families is intensely personal, and I’ve come to recognize that sometimes the insights you can gain from a story that’s not primarily focused on family or intergenerational conflict can be the most interesting and profound. I’m not adopted, but as the only child of divorced parents who both went on to remarry and have other children in their “new” families, I am familiar with the pressure to please that Zacharias feels on one hand, and the frustrations and ambivalence that come from not knowing how you fit in that Prunella experiences. And as with their experiences, it is unclear whether my insecure feelings were necessarily a “fair” or accurate assessment of the situation or simply childish misinterpretations of my reality. Fair or not, they still existed, and to read about characters who share this experience in some way is cathartic. It prompted a lot of reflection on my own past. It also gave me a lot to consider in my personal quest to understand the nature of gratitude and obligation in childhood, where children can’t choose the situation they are given, and often have very little control over the overall structure and events of their world.
Prunella gets what I feel is a little more “traditional” closure to her part in this story (Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a projected series, so her story isn’t entirely at an end). She discovers the truth about her mother and her impressive lineage, and inherits the great power she was always destined to possess. I loved Prunella—her boldness, her loyalty, her single-minded pursuit of what she wanted—and I thrilled to her success and look forward to seeing her again in future volumes. My heart, though, was always more with Zacharias; as the more ambivalent of the two, he embodies the confused kid I once was.
Even as Sorcerer ties up the loose ends in its last few scenes, we’re given a glimpse into the different ways Zacharias and his guardian view their relationship to each other. On one hand, it is revealed that, as a very young child, Zacharias used to ask Sir Stephen about his health whenever he visited the nursery. Sir Stephen remembers this fondly as sweet and precocious behavior. However, Zacharias’ interior monologue reveals that it was something he was instructed to do by his nurse, since he was a “charity case” and his race would make him “harder to love.” From the first pages of the novel to the last, we see Zacharias struggle with his sense of obligation. It is in these final few moments that the ghost of Sir Stephen tells Zacharias what I wish his confused young ward had known all along:
“I chose to take you on, you know. Since the decision to become a parent is invariably self-interested, it is my belief that a parent’s obligation is to the child, and the child’s obligation is to itself.”
And this observation from a ghost, mere paragraphs from the end of the book, is the kernel of truth that made this story into much more than a rollicking adventure—or even a penetrating piece of social commentary cleverly disguised as fantasy—for me. Rarely have I encountered a fantasy story that treats family and its complications with this level of nuance and insight, forgoing the dramatic reveal or confrontation for the statement of a simple truth. I am a parent now myself, and I hope I can remember this moment as my son comes to deal with the inevitable struggle between gratitude and independence. And I hope I’m wise enough to remind him that, as Sir Stephen finally makes clear, his obligation is, and should always be, to himself.
Amber Troska is a freelance writer and editor. When she isn’t reading, you can find her re-watching Stranger Things again.