Colourful witty read of dragons and pontianaks



By Zen Cho

Pan Macmillan/ Hardcover/ 384 pages/ $37.65/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4/5 stars

A bold post-colonial spin on Regency-era historical fantasy, Zen Cho's debut novel Sorcerer To The Crown is a delightful, witty read which adds a welcome burst of colour to the whitewashed Eurocentric tradition that informs much of the genre.

Cho, a Malaysian writer based in London, has been making inroads into the fantasy community with her short fiction, such as Hong Kong steampunk tale The Terracotta Bride and sci-fi space myth The Four Generations Of Chang E. 

 Sorcerer, her first full-length novel, is set in an alternate Napoleonic-era Britain where supplies of magic are on the wane, even as its colonial ambitions reach their height. 

Restoring England's magic is the unenviable task of Zacharias Wythe, freed slave and the first African to be appointed Sorcerer Royal to the Crown. He must do this while beset on all sides by calls for him to be overthrown, 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.

The daughter of an English father who drowned himself and a mysterious Indian mother, she is determined to escape the boarding school for highborn witches where she has slaved all her life. 

 The narrative takes its time to get warmed up and the reader's attention may drift in earlier chapters, but the introduction of the irrepressible Prunella transforms the novel from run-of-the-mill to riveting.  The antics of this effervescent heroine - with her "gift of occasioning shock", as Zacharias puts it - carry the novel.

Sorcerer is written in an unerring Austenite pastiche which will draw comparisons to Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, but Cho also manages to weave into the plot elements from her homeland. For instance, the plight of the faraway Malay kingdom Janda Baik turns out to have far more immediate repercussions on British politics than those in power would like. 

 And while the book is replete with fantastic beasts, South-east Asian readers will rejoice particularly to see pontianaks make an appearance as "Oriental lamiae" alongside the usual line-up of dragons, mermaids and unicorns. 

While visiting the Fairy King, Zacharias is forced to listen to his host reel off complaints about his wife's Asian relations that will bring a wry smile to any fan of Russell Lee's True Singapore Ghost Stories.

"Tracks in blood everywhere," rants the King. "Smells continually of vinegar, has not the decency to wear her feet the right way around, or to put away her innards, but leaves them dangling out in the open for everyone to see."

Cho has a knack for quaint comedy in the vein of Diana Wynne Jones, but it thinly masks the darker side of 19th-century British society.

The oppression of women, for instance, means females are banned from practising magic in England. At the school where Prunella works, girls are taught not to harness their magic but to suppress it, casting spells which drain themselves of their powers. 

Racism also rears its ugly head, with  Zacharias and Prunella frequently the targets of slurs due to their skin colour. 

Although Zacharias is saved from slavery by his adoptive English father Sir Stephen, he must grow up with the bitter knowledge that Sir Stephen did not do the same for his parents, despite being able to afford their freedom.

Magic is the means by which Zacharias and Prunella carve out their places not just within but also at the top of a society that does its level best to cast them out. 

Likewise, Cho subverts and masters the tropes of historical fantasy to make space for herself at a table much in need of such diversity. 

Sorcerer is set to be the first in a trilogy. Hopefully, the next two instalments will further widen the inventive new horizons first sighted within these pages.

If you like this, read: The ongoing Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, another Regency historical fantasy that reimagines how world events during the Napoleonic Wars would have turned out - with dragons. Start with His Majesty's Dragon (Del Rey, 2006, $12.42, Books Kinokuniya)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Colourful witty read of dragons and pontianaks'. Print Edition | Subscribe