Monday, 23 April 2018

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of the time, this was well on track to be a 5-star book, but I felt it went sideways near the end in a few ways.

First, the good. There are plenty of people trying to write in a 19th-century voice these days; there are few who do it this well. I suspect if I were a scholar of early-19th-century literature I'd be able to see ways in which it isn't perfectly authentic, but given that I'm not such a scholar but only a well-read layman, it rings true to me. It doesn't, however, make the mistake of capturing the 19th-century voice so authentically that the prose becomes overly verbose and the plot slows to a crawl; the voice is mainly in the character dialog, rather than the narration. It's true that the characters' dialog is sometimes wordy, but seldom so much so that I found it tedious.

Then, the author has a laudable tendency to put the squeeze on the characters, placing them in untenable situations with a set of bad choices of which they are forced to choose the least bad, thus driving the plot forward. This is particularly marked early on, before they take hold of the plot for themselves and start driving it by their own decisions - also a textbook development which makes for good momentum.

The characters are also trapped within the expectations and prejudices of 19th-century Britain, and struggling hard to escape. Everyone around them takes it as read that an Englishman is better than anyone else in the world, including, of course, an English woman, and has the natural right to trample over anyone else in consequence. Given that the protagonists are a freed black slave and a half-Indian woman from an impoverished background, and another important character is from a country which is trying not to become part of Britain's colonial empire, this makes for some excruciating moments.

The problems, for me, came at the end. I'll be vague in order to avoid outright spoilers.

Firstly, a minor character introduced early on as a Woosteresque dandy with an overbearing aunt suddenly becomes something completely different - so different that, for me, it left the original role he and his aunt had played in events making no sense anymore.

Then Zacharias, the very serious, dutiful Sorcerer Royal, reveals that he has made a costly choice that I didn't completely believe at first, given his ambivalent attitude to the person he did it for; but I eventually accepted it, somewhat uncomfortably, as something he would do. I also didn't believe for some time that he would place Prunella, his cotagonist, in a situation she was manifestly unsuited for in multiple ways, and compound his error by completing a trope which had been hovering throughout the book, thus committing himself to a situation that I was confident would be a deeply unwise choice for both of them and would result in a great deal of misery. I primarily felt this because Prunella had convincingly revealed herself as having "no scruples whatsoever"; she had been wild, irresponsible, opportunistic, self-centred and amoral throughout, but rather than improve on these qualities she got worse, if anything. While writing this review I just now realized that she had made a difficult sacrifice for a good purpose, which directly aided Zacharias, and that does make more sense of the ending.

In short, then, my suspension of disbelief failed towards the end, and lost the book a star which it otherwise had earned.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Jenny Stirling, does an excellent job throughout.

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