Published: September 1, 2015
Awards: Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel
This magical, fantastical, witty comedy of manners meets magical fairyland is so fun to read. There is much foreshadowing to provide plenty of excitement and anticipation for the sequel which has not yet been published. For all it’s playfulness, there is also an underlining seriousness to this novel. This has to do with the politics of Britain and the treatment of women and people of color. In fairyland, race does not matter, it is not even noticed. Likewise, in fairyland, women are equally adept and capable of practicing magic as men are. This is in stark contrast to England. Politics and society are portrayed as a comedy of manners in Britain where people are tripping over themselves to maintain decorum despite the pervading racism and sexism.
The story is set in 19th century England. Upon the death of his guardian and mentor, Zacharias Wythe becomes the “sorcerer royal” more out of obligation, than desire. Given that he is a freed slave, a black man, there is much outcry against him. There is an underground movement afoot to unseat him, led by the unscrupulous and dishonest Geoffrey Midsomer. This all comes at a time when there is a drain on the magic in England, there are political entanglements with magicians from foreign lands, and war is ensuing with France.
Zacharias is asked to visit a school for gentle witches where the main objective is to banish or hide their magical abilities. Zacharias immediately notices the magical talents of Prunella Gentleman, who was orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Daubney at a young age. Prunella has fallen out of favor with Mrs. Daubney, the headmistress of the school and Prunella’s guardian since her father’s death. She asks Prunella to move to the servant’s quarters, but instead Prunella accompanies Zacharias back to London and begins to study thaurmatorgy with him. Prunella has recently discovered herself in possession of a singing orb and seven familiar’s eggs. As she begins to grow her familiars while looking for a husband, her powers grow, and a love interest develops between Zacharias and Prunella. Prunella is certainly a “Cinderella” character, but one with much bravery, talent and ambition. It is she who becomes the true star, the heroine of the novel, able to take the reins of her position, to succeed as the ultimate “Sorceress Royal.”
This is, of course, a very simplified and scaled back version of the novel. There are many subplots within the main plot. The novel is chock full of an interesting array of characters: nosy society ladies, seedy politicians, faeries, vampiresses, curious familiars, mermaids, dragons, and much more!
This novel is craftily written, full of surprises and larger than life characters. It is at once serious and whimsical. It delights and exceeds expectations. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction!!
- What similarities do Prunella Gentleman and Zacharias Wythe share?
- Is magic seen as good or evil? How does this differ depending upon the practitioner of magic?
- Discuss race and gender in the British society of this novel. Does the author construe them as they were in 19th century Britain or modern day? Is there a depiction of white supremacy and institutionalized oppression? How so?
- How is Prunella like a Cinderella story?
- Discuss Mak Genggang’s role.
- How does Zacharias respond to Sir Stephen’s advice? How does this differ from when Sir Stephen was alive?
- Discuss Prunella’s plans for the future of England. What specific changes does she have in mind?
- How does Zacharias sacrifice himself for Sir Stephen? How ultimately is the repaired?
- What is the value and cost of having a familiar?
- Zachary’s does not confront Sir Stephen about his parents until the end. Please discuss.
- Discuss the parallel between Sir Stephen wanting to train a black sorcerer and Zacharias championing the rights of female magicians, or magiciennes.