Yesterday in my review of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I talked about two big trends in fantasy: Silk Road Fantasy and Mannerpunk/Flintlock Fantasy. Twelve Kings is an excellent example of the former. Sorcerer to the Crown is an excellent example of the latter. Or, rather, to the extent that Mannerpunk and Flintlock Fantasy are distinct subgenres, it is an excellent example of Mannerpunk. Flintlock Fantasy is more military in nature and looks to the campaigns of Napoleon. Mannerpunk is often historical fantasy set during the Napoleonic Wars, but it is much more heavily influenced by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
Zacharias Wythe has become Sorcerer Royal of England at a young age. He also came into the staff of office under the worst possible circumstances. The atmospheric magic in England has been declining for several years. Fairyland hasn’t permitted a familiar to cross in decades. Many fellow thaumaturges believe he murdered his predecessor. His predecessor’s familiar is nowhere to be found but his predecessor’s ghost is. A witch named Mak Genggang from the island of Janda Baik in the Malaccan Strait (part of modern day Malaysia, as best I can tell) arrives and is threatening to pull Zacharias into affairs of state). And Zacharias is black. The former Sorcerer Royal purchased Zacharias as a child (but not his parents), (eventually) manumitted him, and trained him in magic. Zacharias is a quiet character, always straight-laced and in control lest keeping it real go wrong, but he also developed into a favorite. He’s so earnest, and so dogged in seeking reform and in dealing with the fact he doesn’t really want the staff.
A trip early in the book to a school for gentlewitches introduces the suitably ridiculously named Prunella Gentleman. Prunella’s father brought her back from England, and she helped at the school from his death until some unfortunate events around Zacharias’ visit lead to her departure. Not the best place to be though, really, because the primary purpose of a school for gentlewitches is to suppress the use of magic by women. Prunella makes the book, providing the comic foil to Zacharias’ straight man.
And Sorcerer to the Crown is genuinely and pervasively funny. It is not, though, a farce, and the only stumble is when Cho veers into that territory with clumsy subplot involving Prunella entering society in search of a rich husband. And the climax is silly in the best sort of way (it appears this is the first salvo in a series, but it stands alone).
Sorcerer to the Crown is definitely Mannerpunk, and it has the sort of wonderful Regency era language (although your mileage may vary). It is set in England during the Napoleonic Wars (or near abouts—Napoleon is mentioned). There is a great romance in there, and the book has all of the intricate social maneuvering you would expect, along with an intricate magic system.
Sorcerers et al., as you might suspect, are viewed with some suspicion in England. “In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.” (Someone might less charitably remark that “They used to say that a man became a magician who was too scheming for Parliament, too bloodthirsty for the Army, and too much of a bloody sodomite for the Navy.”) It does though have a scholarly nature and the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers has an air of academia to it. A policy of non-interference in affairs of state and a treaty with France’s sorciers leaves many practitioners without much to do but spend their days at the Theurgist’s Club. The terminology is a bit confusing (as it should be): “Any man could be a magician; any gentleman a thaumaturge; any scholar an unnatural philosopher. But only a magician that commanded the loyalty of a familiar could claim the title of sorcerer.”
Highly recommended for fans of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. (I think Sorcerer to the Crown is better, to be honest, and I loved the Glamourist Histories books.)
Disclosure: I received a copy of Sorcerer to the Crown via NetGalley.