The 2015 Hugo Awards were a huge mess. For those of you who weren’t following along, a group of disgruntled sci-fi authors decided that sci-fi and fantasy nowadays had way too many messages for their liking and were no longer “fun”. Disgusted by people they called “social justice warriors”, they set out to ensure that Hugo voting ballots were filled with stories written by people who were not women or people of color, and the ensuing chaos was widely reported by the media. Wired, in particular, has a great summary of all the events. As they say:
Like the sound of starship engines, the Hugos don’t exist in a vacuum. Consider: A woman named Adria Richards Twitter-shames two white dudes for cracking off-color jokes at PyCon, a tech developer conference (and then is fired and fields murder threats). GamerGate makes a political movement out of threatening with rape any woman who has the temerity to offer an opinion about a videogame. A certain strain of comic book fan goes apoplectic whenever Captain America gets replaced with a black man or Thor gets replaced with a woman. This is more than just hatred of change: When Thor once got replaced by a frog (yes, that really happened) no one uttered a peep (or a ribbit). The Culture Wars are raging at the highest levels (and all corners) of American society.
This conflict, this gatekeeping, is inescapable. And all of the Hugo hubbub makes for a spectacular segue into Zen Cho’s book, Sorcerer to the Crown, which will be eligible for the 2016 Hugo Awards. Though Cho, a Malaysian woman living in England, insists that she didn’t set out to write a message novel, the idea behind of her book cannot be clearer. Who acts as the gatekeepers to a canon, and who decides who gets to contribute to that canon? Sorcerer to the Crown asks us: who gets to contribute to Britain’s magical canon? In short, who can be considered a sorcerer, and who cannot?
In Sorcerer to the Crown, magic is a natural ability found across all genders and races, regardless of class or upbringing. Perhaps for this reason, the English never considered magic a particularly English thing to practice, opting to introduce second sons with magical abilities into training while keeping their eldest sons for the aristocracy. These magically gifted people can be trained as thaumaturges and lead a successful career as such. By English custom, however, only proper (read: white) Englishmen are capable of performing magic, and women and people of color are too fragile or too dumb (or both) to truly master magic. Our novel’s main characters, Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman, are both magically gifted, but because of their races (and gender, for Prunella), they find themselves barred from magical society and their accomplishments are continuously questioned and openly derided.
Let’s start with Zacharias. In order to rise to the level of sorcerer from thaumaturge, a thaumaturge needs a familiar—a creature from Fairy who deigns to serve a thaumaturge in exchange for later payment. The greatest of these sorcerers, and the one to whom England looks in all things magical, is the Sorcerer Royal. At the time the book begins, Zacharias is England’s current Sorcerer Royal—the first ever Sorcerer Royal of African descent. The title of the Sorcerer Royal is confirmed by the sorcerer’s familiar and his mastery of the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, which pretenders cannot use without being killed. So fortunately for Zacharias, it’s quickly confirmed that despite the color of his skin, he is indeed England’s Sorcerer Royal. However, just confirmation doesn’t mean that racism in the Regency-era England in which the book is set is put to bed. Newspapers immediately start publishing libelous articles on Zacharias’s actions and cartoons that depict him as a savage African (similar to the ones used about President Obama), while politicians start bemoaning the fact that having an African as Sorcerer Royal must surely mean that English magic is truly going downhill.
Zacharias’s conflict is particularly internal—it’s fellow outcast Prunella who moves much of the external plot forward, and Zacharias spends much of his time dealing with his conflicted racial and family history. When he was four, he was separated from his parents and purchased as a slave by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, who brought him to England as part of a calculated attempt to prove to English thaumaturges that non-white men could also practice magic. Sir Stephen later freed Zacharias and adopted him, but it’s impossible for Zacharias to forget that his caring adoptive father never made the effort to buy his biological parents or that Sir Stephen bought him and brought him to England as a sort of evidence, not out of love. When the novel begins, Sir Stephen is dead, but his ghost literally haunts Zacharias—Zacharias is the only one who can see Sir Stephen’s ghost and hear his voice, and as Zacharias tries to change the magical world so that women and people of color can contribute, Sir Stephen hovers over him, an actual literal depiction of the new generation being kindly patronized to by the older status quo.
While Zacharias is struggling with his racist thaumaturge peers, a friend convinces him to go to a school for young gentlewomen and give a speech on not using magic. It’s there that he meets Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race orphan. By virtue of her gender and her class, she’s in a much more precarious position than was Zacharias, who was at least adopted by a wealthy aristocratic family. Zacharias, a product of his times, buys into the idea that women should not use magic because it would be too much stress on their more delicate bodies. However, after seeing Prunella holding her own in a classroom full of angry schoolgirls, all of whom are throwing hexes at each other, Zacharias begins to believe, much to Sir Stephen’s chagrin, that magic should be taught to women.
“I am not sure I credit these tales of the peculiar dangers of magic for women. After all, did not the Society say much the same of me? That my body could not support, nor my mind comprehend, the subtleties of the craft? You championed my abilities in the teeth of their opposition. Can you truly say, sir, that I should not seek to do for women what you did for me?”
—Zacharias to Sir Stephen
Because she’s an orphan who’s visibly not white, Prunella occupies a weird place at the school. She’s not quite a servant, but she’s definitely not a young lady, either. She stays there out of the generosity of Mrs. Daubeney, who knew Prunella’s late father. However, Mrs. Daubeney is horrified that Prunella and many of the girls were found fighting each other on the eve of the Sorcerer Royal’s visit, and insists that Prunella must from then on be treated as a servant—she must sleep in the servant’s quarters and call all the students “miss”. Prunella is outraged at this, and sets out to convince Zacharias that he should take her back to London with him. Zacharias thinks this is a prime opportunity to teach her magic and prove his theory, but Prunella, at first, isn’t interested—she wants to find a wealthy husband, as girls were taught they should in that time period, and be able to live comfortably.
The great thing about Zacharias and Prunella’s early interactions is that they show how ideas of intersectionality work with and affect the characters. Though Zacharias is discriminated against himself, it’s not until he meets Prunella that he begins to think that women are capable of magic. Prunella similarly doesn’t think herself capable of magic, believing that she is naturally weaker than her male counterparts and insisting that she must find a husband to become more than a penniless mixed-race orphan. When Zacharias starts writing a syllabus for the education of magical women, he and Sir Stephen get into an argument over what counts as magic—Sir Stephen pushes to include necromancy in the syllabus as it’s women who lay out the dead, and when Zacharias suggests a chapter on household magics, complimenting the many ways in which women apply magic to straighten out clothes and ensure that their cooking doesn’t burn, Sir Stephen dismisses it as irrelevant and unworthy of a true thaumaturge, who of course must come from the upper classes and not waste their time with household chores.
When Prunella gets to London, she tries to apply herself to her lessons with Zacharias, but she quickly realizes that there are some things she might not trust Zacharias with. When she realizes that an old Malaysian witch that the English consider a political enemy might be able to teach her some things, she doesn’t hesitate. Mak Genggang, the witch, is the one to correct Prunella’s preconceptions—women are far from too fragile to practice magic, and Prunella herself is enormously powerful. Despite English society believing that women are too weak for magic, Prunella finds herself confronted again and again by powerful magical women, all of whom thoroughly convince her that her preconceived beliefs are wrong.
Finally, when all is revealed about Prunella’s parentage and the true strength of her power is realized, Sir Stephen, the old guard, is ecstatic. He insists to Zacharias that as the Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias should at once invade foreign countries and seek out more powerful magical artifacts to cement the strength of England as a magical nation. Zacharias says of Prunella’s mother:
“She foresaw what would occur if Europe were to discover her people’s wealth: the interference in their affairs, the miserable increase of bloodshed and oppression.”
Sir Stephen went white, then red.
“Need I remind you that you are England’s Sorcerer Royal?” he said. “Your title will on occasion demand the exercise of power — even, where necessary, what you are pleased to call oppression and bloodshed. But that is the nature of the office. You are called upon to advance the good of this nation, and none other. Your allegiance is not to magic alone, nor to all humanity, but to your own portion of humanity, to the country that nurtured you—”
“And enslaved my parents?” said Zacharias.
That silenced Sir Stephen. He sat down in the chair that used to be his, moving, for once, like an old man.
Sorcerer to the Crown clearly shows that outside of England, people do think differently and people who are discriminated against in England do get to occupy positions of magical power outside of England. So when Zacharias and Prunella finally manage to rise to positions of power, it reads more like England realizing that they can leave the Dark Ages behind, rather than attempting to be some sort of trailblazer for equality. By showing that there are people of color in positions of power outside of Britain, it really shows what a backward tradition Britain clings to in the novel and proves that opening the gates of their magical canon can only be a good thing. It’s something that I hope more of us will realize as our culture wars continue.