Macmillan, out now
Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, must face threats from all sides if he is to discover why England’s supplies of magic are drying up…
Regency wit, humour, racial and sexual politics, magic, romance, even dragons: they’re all here in Zen Cho’s carefully constructed fantasy novel. It’s the opening book in a trilogy centred around Zacharias Wythe – who has attained the position of Sorcerer Royal much to the displeasure of those who dislike him simply because of his race – and his foil, Prunella Gentleman, who can’t possibly have any affinity with magic because she is – shock, horror – a woman. There are times when the questions of discrimination are as in your face as that description would imply, although Cho imbues the whole book with an air of battling against the odds.
Comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are inevitable – not helped by a quote on the cover that does that – but if you come to Sorcerer expecting more of the same (save on a very surface level), you’ll be surprised. This isn’t another often-serious treatise with footnotes that last a page; this is far more of an adventure that will appeal to those who like their historical fiction with a supernatural twist. The threats come from opponents both magical and mundane, and you’re often more worried for Zacharias’ future because of the actions of the latter than the former. Prunella occasionally threatens to dominate proceedings – the book may be titled after Zacharias, but Cho devotes as much time to presenting his student as a rounded character as she does the Sorcerer (who does get a number of thought-provoking discussions)… but appropriately it’s Prunella who gets the last word.
Verdict: An enthralling and often very funny novel which I suspect will reward multiple readings. 8/10