The meeting of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty. Only the occasional tardy magician passed through, scarcely sparing a glance for the child waiting there.
Boy children of his type were not an uncommon sight in the Society’s rooms. The child was unusual less for his complexion than for his apparent idleness. Unlike the Society’s splendidly liveried pages, he was soberly dressed, and he was young for a page boy, having just attained his sixth summer.
In fact, Zacharias held no particular employment, and he had never seen the Society before that morning, when he had been conducted there by th Sorcerer Royal himself. Sir Stephen had adjured him to wait, then vanished into the mysterious depths of the Great Hall.
Zacharias was awed by the stately building, with its sombre woodpanelled walls and imposing paintings, and he was a little frightened of the grave thaumaturges hurrying past in their midnight blue coats. Most of all he was rendered solemn by the seriousness of his task. He sat, swollen with purpose, gazing at the doors to the Great Hall, as though by an effort of will he might compel them to open and disgorge his guardian.
We first meet Zacharias as he is introduced to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and required to demonstrate on behalf of his race that black men can also use magic. When we see him next, some years later, he’s inherited Sir Stephen’s position as Sorcerer Royal, but his personal position is barely improved: he faces explicit racism at every turn, there are rumours about the legitimacy (or otherwise) of his appointment, and the Society itself is in trouble as England faces a shortage of magic.
A trip to speak at a girls’ school offers the opportunity to escape the troubles of London for a few days, but Zacharias is aghast to learn that magical education for women consists of learning a dangerous ritual to deplete one’s own magic. And then there’s Prunella: an orphan who helps out at the school, she’s a natural magic-worker who builds impromptu spells that would be impressive even if they were produced by a formally trained magician. Coming from an untrained woman, it’s enough to upset all of his previously held prejudices about women practicing magic, and he’s smart enough to recognise parallels with his own experiences as part of an unwelcome minority. Plus, he really quite likes her.
As a mixed-race orphan, Prunella’s prospects have always been unfairly limited, but she’s clever and ambitious, and willing to take risks to better her situation. She’s immediately attracted to the Sorcerer Royal, but she wouldn’t set her sights that high: through him, she spies the opportunity to get to London, be properly introduced to society, and make a good marriage for herself. If that requires her to feign an interest in the more formal elements of a magical education, then it’s a small price to pay.
Sir Stephen may be dead, but he hasn’t left, and haunts Zacharias with fatherly advice — such as to stay well away from Prunella and her schemes. This kind of unsolicited intervention seldom goes well, and Zacharias isn’t minded to listen. Zacharias’ relationship with his ghostly mentor is a complex one: Sir Stephen is the closest thing he’s had to a father for most of his life, and has steered him through the ranks of the Society, but he also bought the young Zacharias out of slavery, leaving his parents behind to struggle on in bondage. There’s also the matter of the Exchange, the mysterious process through which the new Sorcerer Royal takes up his staff, and which Zacharias refuses to discuss with anyone (fuelling the already-churning gossip and speculation).
As Prunella and Zacharias travel together, they learn more about themselves and each other, as well as the problems with England’s magical supply and the plot to overthrow Zacharias. I loved the understated development of their relationship as the book progresses, and the way they gradually learn to play upon one another’s strengths and guard against one another’s weaknesses. Theirs is a beautiful friendship; the transition to romance is shy and slightly awkward, but by the time a couple have taken on the whole of magical London together, they probably have a pretty strong foundation for building anything else they might imagine.
I basically loved everything about this book. The setting is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I also enjoyed), but although magic in both books is basically the preserve of upper-class white men, in Sorcerer we see the underrepresented groups start to push back. Zacharias and Prunella are fantastic leads who I’d love to spend more time with. And there were quite a number of passages where I laughed so hard I had to put the book down. Utterly delightful.
Sorcerer to the Crown is published in September, and is currently available on pre-order.