Zacharias did not inherit an easy situation when he assumed the position of sorcerer royal; Magic in Victorian Britain continues to decline; mystery and suspicion surrounds his succession from his late mentor, Sir Stephen; and, as a black man and the freed child of a slave, no matter how well he performs his role, there will always be opportunists waiting to stab him the back.
Ad all that’s before he meets Prunella Gentleman, a woman whose about to make his life a whole lot more complicated. In sexist Victorian Britain where female magic use is considered taboo, Prunella appears to be one of the most powerful magic users Zacharias has ever met. And not only that; Prunella also carries with her a discovery so monumental that it could change the face of magic in Britain forever….
Sorcerer to the Crown is a unique piece of steampunk in so many ways. Having a black lead in an urban fantasy is rare enough. But a black man in a steampunk novel? And a fully realised biracial woman? Virtually unheard of. In spite of the fact that one of the key features of the Victorian era was colonialism and financial expeditions into the ‘New World’, (something that lurks in the background of Dombey and Son and Jane Eyre), most Steampunk novels portray Victorian Britain as an isolated country full of twee white people who have never had contact with the outside world- an absurd representation of the time period. Sorcerer to The Crown however, expertly Britain’s colonialist tendencies into the story and weaves its relationships with none European countries it into the wider plot.
Zacharias himself is a brilliant, complex lead, and a big part of what makes his experiences so unique is the way his difficulty being a black man in Victorian society is portrayed. It’s not only aggressive assaults from villainous caricatures; it’s constant little hints that he’s ‘not quite equal’.It’s the frustration of loving his father figure and mentor, Sir Stephen, who freed him from slavery- but being unable to stop resenting Sir Stephen for freeing him as a sort of experiment, and failing to free Zacharias’ parents too because they were of no use to Sir Stephen.
The real main protagonist (who is set up to be the main protagonist in later books) is Prunella Gentleman. Prunella is the perfect foil to Zacharias- lively, impulsive and not afraid to show her emotions. Prunella is highly reminiscent of Lizzy Bennett or a young Jane Eyre and gets all the best lines. She will no doubt be a very popular character, though she is not one I particularly liked; her selfishness and lack of application frustrated me, and those flaws were made all the more glaring by contrast to Zacharias. Plus, she is another example in the genre of an extremely powerful spellcaster whose the strongest not because she works hard for it (unlike Zacharias, who spent years of studying while he had to essentially bribe Prunella to put in some serious study), but because the powers just happened to fall into her lap.
Her flaws are completely realistic for her situation, however, due to her background and at the end of the book just being really powerful isn’t enough to get her what she wants and she is forced to start making some really tough decisions. Prunella shows potential to mature in later books and I am looking forward to it. It’s just that I found Zacharias to be the much more likeable lead and I wished it could have remained his story, like it appeared to be from the beginning.
The corruption of the thaumaturges (what this series call wizards) is realistic and brilliantly portrayed. Magic is the reserve of the upper classes, and its so classist that you can be a thaumaturge without powers but you can’t be a thaumaturge without rank. They whittle away the limited magic on extravagant spectacle, yet women using magic for beauty is decadent. The Victorian upper class is excellently portrayed, and the way the Thaumaturge is presented is so realistic that if magic did exist in Victorian England, this is exactly how it would be institutionalised.
Now we come onto to the magic. In almost every single urban fantasy/ supernatural steam punk its almost always vampires and werewolves as the main two species, unless it’s witches. But here, the other central creatures, besides the magic users, are fairies, with mermaids and dragons, creatures from myth and folklore rather than horror. The world of the fairies is vividly portrayed and is reminiscent of Midsummer’s Night Dream. The world is surreal, a little absurd (a foppish king and a dragon having the bearing of a strict upper-class old lady) mischievous but also dangerous- fairies were once considered creatures of the occult and the link is present here.
The plot is strong and engaging as well with action, character development and world building happening in the right measure. Never once did the plot sag, and I was interested from start to finish. The only criticism I could add is that the conclusion to the Sultan and witch plot thread seemed too easily wrapped up; it was not a deus ex machina or anything unconvincing- but having a quick solution to what seemed up to be a giant international conflict in the last few pages seemed a bit unlikely. Big power struggles that escalate to the point where foreign powers are dragged in never end up being resolved as swiftly and bloodlessly as this one was; it just felt ‘too simple to be true’. Then again- this is the first book in the series and this could be present in other books, so it will remain to be seen.
All the negative points are extremely minor and this is one of the most engaging fantasy stories I have ever read. I strongly recommend it to anyone who lives fantasy.
RATING: 5 chidings from a most disappointed dragon / 5