Sorcerer to the Crown
By Zen Cho
Fantasy/Pan Macmillan/2015/Paperback/384 pages/$18.95/Available here
Regency romance gets a post-colonial spin in this delightful historical fantasy of dragons and pontianaks, which its Malaysian author has described as "the kind of book you read when you have a cold".
In an alternate 19th-century England, Zacharias Wythe becomes the first magician of African heritage to be appointed Sorcerer Royal to the Crown.
It is his unenviable task to restore England's waning magic, all the while beset by racist attacks, accusations that he murdered his predecessor and the occasional assassination attempt.
On a trip to Fairyland to discern the source of the magical drought, he crosses paths with runaway orphan Prunella Gentleman, who is determined to escape the boarding school for highborn witches where she has slaved all her life.
The antics of the effervescent if unscrupulous Prunella - with her "gift of occasioning shock", as a long-suffering Zacharias puts it - carry the novel.
Sorcerer To The Crown was published five years before the runaway success of steamy Netflix series Bridgerton (2020 to present).
Cho, too, reproduces top-notch Regency pastiche and peoples her comedy of manners with a diverse cast.
But unlike the colour-blindness practised by Bridgerton, she takes pains to contextualise what such diversity would mean historically.
Zacharias was born enslaved, taught magic by his late mentor as a kind of social experiment, while Prunella is half-Indian. There is also Mak Genggang, a formidable witch from the Malay kingdom Janda Baik, which turns out to be more pertinent to British politics than one might assume.
Magic gives these characters the means to carve out their places at the top of a society that does its level best to cast them out.
Likewise, Cho subverts and masters the tropes of an often whitewashed genre - and is utterly charming in the process.
- Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.