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Shortlisted for the 2016 Locus First Novel Award & the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Novel and Best Newcomer The fate of English magic lies in their hands. . . In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England's first African Sorcerer Royal. He leads the eminent Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but a malicious faction seeks to remove him by fair means or foul. Meanwhile, the Society is failing its vital duty - to keep stable the levels of magic within His Majesty's lands. The Fairy Court is blocking its supply, straining England's dangerously declining magical stores. And now the government is demanding to use this scarce resource in its war with France. Ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman is desperate to escape the school where she's drudged all her life, and a visit by the beleaguered Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic's greatest discovery in centuries - and she intends to make the most of it. At his wits' end, the last thing Zachariah needs is a female magical prodigy! But together, they might just change the nature of sorcery, in Britain and beyond.
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Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia and now lives in London. She was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for her short fiction and recently won the Crawford Award. Sorcerer to the Crown is Zen Cho's debut novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 the 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 wood-panelled 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.
Finally, the moment came: the doors opened, and Sir Stephen beckoned to him.
Zacharias entered the Great Hall under the penetrating gaze of what seemed to be a thousand gentlemen, most of them old, and none friendly. Sir Stephen was the only person he knew, for one could not count Sir Stephen’s familiar Leofric, who slept curled in reptilian coils at the back of the room, smoke rising from his snout.
The thickest-skinned child might have been cowed by such an assembly, and Zacharias was sensitive. But Sir Stephen put a reassuring hand on his back, and Zacharias remembered the morning, so long ago now—home, safety, warmth, and Lady Wythe’s face bending over him:
“Never be afraid, Zacharias, but do your best. That will be quite enough, for you have been taught by the finest sorcerer in the realm. If the attention of so many gentlemen should make you nervous, simply pretend to yourself that they are so many heads of cabbages. That always assists me on such occasions.”
Zacharias was pretending as hard as he could as he was propelled to the front of the room, but the cabbages did not seem to help. To be sure, Lady Wythe had never been called upon to prove the magical capacities of her race before the finest thaumaturgical minds in England. It was a grave responsibility, and one anyone would find daunting, thought Zacharias, even if he were a great boy of six.
“What do you wish to bring alive, Zacharias?” said Sir Stephen. He gestured at a small wooden box on a table. “In the course of his travels Mr. Midsomer acquired this box, carved with birds and fruit and outlandish animals. You may have your pick.”
Zacharias had rehearsed the enchantment he was to perform many times under Sir Stephen’s patient tutelage. The night before, he had fallen asleep reciting the formula to himself. Yet now, as he was surrounded by a crowd of strange faces, oppressed by the consciousness of being the focus of their attention, memory deserted him.
His terrified gaze swung from Sir Stephen’s kind face, skipped over the audience, and roamed over the Great Hall, as if he might find the words of the spell waiting for him in some dusty corner. It was the oldest room in the Society, and boasted several interesting features, chief of which were the ancient carved bosses on the ceiling. These represented lambs, lions and unicorns; faces of long-dead sorcerers; and Green Men with sour expressions and vines sprouting from their nostrils. At any other time they would have captivated Zacharias, but right now they could give him no pleasure.
“I have forgotten the spell,” he whispered.
“What is that?” said Sir Stephen. He had been speaking in clear ringing tones before, addressing his audience, but now he lowered his voice and leaned closer.
“No helping the boy, if you please,” cried a voice. “That will prove nothing of what you promised.”
The audience had been growing restless with Zacharias’s stupefaction. Other voices followed the first, hectoring, displeased:
“Is the child an idiot?”
“A poll parrot would offer better amusement.”
“Can you conceive anything more absurd?” said a thaumaturge to a friend, in a carrying whisper. “He might as well seek to persuade us that a pig can fly—or a woman do magic!”
The friend observed that so could pigs fly, if one could be troubled to make them.
“Oh certainly!” replied the first. “And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?”
“This is a great gift to the press,” cried a gentleman with red whiskers and a supercilious expression. “What fine material we have furnished today for the caricaturists—a meeting of the first magicians of our age, summoned to watch a piccaninny stutter! Has English thaumaturgy indeed been so reduced by the waning of England’s magic that Sir Stephen believes we have nothing better to do?”
Unease rippled through the crowd, as though what the gentleman had said sat ill with his peers. Zacharias said anxiously: “Perhaps there is not enough magic.”
“Tush!” said Sir Stephen. To Zacharias’s embarrassment, he spoke loud enough for the entire room to hear. “Pray do not let that worry you. It pleases Mr. Midsomer to enlarge upon the issue, but I believe England is still furnished with sufficient magic to quicken any tolerable magician’s spells.”
The red-whiskered gentleman shouted an indistinct riposte, but he was not allowed to finish, for three other thaumaturges spoke over him, disagreeing vociferously. Six more magicians took up Mr. Midsomer’s defence, alternating insults to their peers with condemnation of Sir Stephen and mockery of his protégé. A poor sort of performing animal it was, they said, that would not perform!
“What an edifying sight for a child—a room full of men several times his size, calling him names,” said one gentleman, who had the sorcerer’s silver star pinned to his coat. He did not trouble to raise his voice, but his cool accents seemed to cut through the tumult. “It is all of a piece with the most ancient traditions of our honourable Society, I am sure, and evidence of how well we deserve our position in the world.”
Mr. Midsomer flushed with anger.
“Mr. Damerell may say what he likes, but I see no reason why we should restrain our criticism of this absurd spectacle, child or no child,” he snapped.
“I am sure you do not, Midsomer,” said Damerell gently. “I have always admired your refusal, in the pursuit of your convictions, ever to be constrained by considerations of humanity—much less of ordinary good manners.”
The room erupted into more argument than ever. The clamour mounted till it seemed it must wake the carvings on the box, and even the slumbering bosses on the ceiling, without Zacharias’s needing to lift a finger.
Zacharias looked around, but everyone had ceased to pay attention to him. For the moment he was reprieved.
He let out a small sigh of relief. As if that tiny breath were the key to his locked memory, his mind opened, and the spell fell into it, fully formed. The words were so clear and obvious, their logic so immaculate, that Zacharias wondered that he had ever lost them.
He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call. The birds carved upon the box blushed red, green, blue and yellow, and he knew that the spell had caught.
The birds peeled away from the box as they took on substance and being, their wings springing away from their bodies, feathers sprouting upon their flesh. They flew up to the ceiling, squawking. The breeze from their wings brushed Zacharias’s face, and he laughed.
One by one the carved bosses sprang to life, and the dead sorcerers and the sour old Green Men and the lions and the lambs and the birds opened their mouths, all of them singing, singing lustily Zacharias’s favourite song, drowning out the angry voices of the men below, and filling the room with glorious sound.
Eighteen years later
LADY FRANCES BURROW’S guests had not noticed her butler particularly when he showed them into the house, but the self-important flourish with which he now flung open the door piqued curiosity. Those who broke off conversations, and raised their head from their ices, were duly rewarded by his announcement:
“Lady Maria Wythe and Mr. Zacharias Wythe!”
It had not been three months since Zacharias Wythe had taken up the staff of the Sorcerer Royal—not so long since his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, had died. He was an object of general interest, and to the great increase of Lady Frances’s complacency, more than one pair of eyes followed his progress around her drawing room.
Zacharias Wythe could not fail to draw attention wherever he went. The dark hue of his skin would mark him out among any assembly of his colleagues, but he was also remarkable for his height, and the handsomeness of his features, which was not impaired by his rather melancholy expression. Perhaps the last was not surprising in one who had entered into his office in such tragic circumstances, and at a time when the affairs of English thaumaturgy were approaching an unprecedented crisis.
Stranger than his colour, however, and more distressing than any other circumstance was the fact that Zacharias Wythe had no familiar, though he bore the Sorcerer Royal’s ancient staff. Lady Frances’s guests did not hesitate to tell each other what they thought of this curious absence, but they spoke in hushed voices—less in deference to the black crepe band around Zacharias’s arm than out of respect for his companion.
It was Lady Wythe whom Lady Frances had invited, overbearing her protests with generous insistence:
“It is hardly a party! Only one’s most intimate friends! You must take it in the light of a prescription, dear Maria. It cannot be good for you to mope about at home. Mr. Wythe, too, ought not to be left too much to himself, I am sure.”
In Zacharias, Lady Frances had hit upon the chief remaining object of Lady Wythe’s anxiety and affection. Lady Wythe’s bereavement was great, and she had never been fond of society even before Sir Stephen’s death. But for Zacharias she would do a great deal, and for his sake she essayed forth in her black bombazine, to do battle in a world turned incalculably colder and drearier by her husband’s departure.
“I wonder what Lord Burrow is about?” she said to Zacharias. “It cannot do any harm to ask him about your spells to arrest the decline in our magic. Sir Stephen said Lord Burrow had as good an understanding of the science of thaumaturgy as any man he knew.”
It had formed no small part of Lady Wythe’s desire to attend the party that Lord Burrow chaired the Presiding Committee that governed the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. Lord Burrow had been a friend to Sir Stephen, but he had regarded Sir Stephen’s scheme to educate a negro boy in magic as an unfortunate freak—an eccentricity only tolerable in a man of his great parts. The turn that had bestowed the staff of the Sorcerer Royal on that negro boy was not, in Lord Burrow’s view, one to be welcomed. He was learned enough not to ascribe Britain’s imminent crisis of magical resource either to Zacharias’s complexion or to his inexperience, but that did not mean he looked upon Zacharias himself with any warmth.
His support would do a great deal to bolster Zacharias’s position, however, if it could be got. It was with this thought in mind that Lady Wythe had chivvied Zacharias along, for Zacharias was as disinclined for society as Lady Wythe could be. Though he had, at four and twenty, all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime’s intercourse with the good and great of the magical world, by nature he was rather retiring than sociable, and his manners were impaired by reserve.
He had agreed to accompany Lady Wythe because he believed society might enliven her spirits, but he balked at her directive to make up to Lord Burrow:
“Like as not he will think it an absurd impertinence in me to presume to have identified a solution for our difficulties, when so many better magicians than I have failed. Besides, my researches had hardly advanced in any degree before they were suspended.”
Before Sir Stephen’s death and Zacharias’s subsequent elevation, Zacharias had devoted the bulk of his time to the pursuit of thaumaturgical inquiries. He had surveyed the household magics clandestinely transacted by females of the labouring classes, to which the Society turned a blind eye; he had studied the magics of other nations, producing a monograph on the common structures of African and Asiatic enchantments; but in the period preceding Sir Stephen’s death, he had been chiefly engaged in the devising of spells to reverse the ongoing decline of England’s magic.
It was a project of considerable practical interest, but Zacharias had not so much as looked at it in several months. For Zacharias, as for Lady Wythe, Sir Stephen’s death was the point at which the ordinary course of time had been halted. What ensued after that date had been life of quite a different kind, scarcely connected with what had gone before.
“I should not like to show my spells to anyone, in their current state,” said Zacharias now.
Lady Wythe was too wise to press the point. “Well then, perhaps we ought to see to your being introduced to some of the young ladies here. Lady Frances said they might get up a dance after dinner. There cannot be any objection to your joining in, and it would be a pity if any young lady were compelled to sit out a dance for want of a partner.”
Zacharias’s look of consternation was comical. “I scarcely think they will be pleased to be offered such a partner. You forget in your partiality what a very alarming object I am.”
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Wythe. “You are precisely the kind of creature girls like best to swoon over. Dark, mysterious, quiet—for a young man who talks a great deal always seems a coxcomb. The very image of romance! Think of Othello.”
“His romance came to no good end,” said Zacharias.
It seemed he was in the right of it, for it soon became evident that Zacharias was having a curious effect upon the other guests. Whispered discussions were hushed suddenly as he passed. Thaumaturges who might be expected to greet the head of their profession nodded to Lady Wythe, but averted their eyes from Zacharias.
Zacharias was not unaccustomed to such treatment; if it troubled him, he had no intention of letting Lady Wythe know it. Lady Wythe was not so hardened, however. Though the other guests’ withdrawal was scarcely overt, her powers of observation were sharpened by affection, and what she saw wounded her.
“Can I credit my eyes?” she said in a low voice. “Did I see Josiah Cullip cut you?”
Zacharias said, in a dishonourable fit of cowardice, “Perhaps he did not see me.”
“Zacharias, my dear, I do ...
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