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.]