Sorcerer to the Crown, one of the Great Hyped Books of 2015, is actually pretty fantastic. It's set in Regency England (I think? Not 100 per cent sure about the time period), or rather an alternate version in which magic is studied by and taught to rich gentlemen. It's illegal for women to study magic, although the upper classes turn a blind eye to their servants doing untutored magic to help with their household tasks.
England, however, is suffering from a dearth of magic, meaning that the once-powerful Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is losing its standing, and possibly its funding, with the government. Enter Zacharias Wythe: a black man born a slave, bought as an infant by Sir Stephen Wythe after he showed talent at magic, and tutored by Sir Stephen into the position of Sorcerer Royal, head of the Unnatural Philosophers. Despite his evident talent and qualification for the position, the magicians despise him for his race, and he has to toe the line between serving his country and surviving the machinations of the Society. Which can mean only one thing: Regency politics!
Enter, also, Prunella Gentleman, a young woman whose mother was Indian and whose father killed himself. After the schoolmistress with whom she lives bows to the demands of her charges' parents and makes Prunella a servant, Prunella runs away to London to make her fortune, meeting Zacharias along the way. She, too, has to play the deadly game of politics among London's elite (she has a secret which makes her a target for the members of the Society), trying to establish power in spite of her race and her gender.
First things first: Sorcerer to the Crown is so much fun! I love Regency politics anyway (gods know why, because I can't stand high fantasy politics), but Prunella is absolutely fabulous, feisty and straight-talking and a breath of fresh air through Regency conceptions of what women can do. There are fairies and demons and assassination attempts and spells and all manner of magical accoutrements, not to mention a fair dose of humour added to the Machiavellian politics of it all.
Secondly: Cho's treatment of race and gender in historical fantasy is important. She writes about how Zacharias has to keep his temper, to stay forgiving and patient and quiet, long after others do, because of his race; and how Prunella's parentage makes her undesirable and suspect, how her gender holds her back from advantages that men get automatically. (It's also interesting that women showing inconvenient signs of magic are taught to inflict curses upon themselves to suppress it; this seems to me to be quite a nice metaphor for the various kinds of self-suppression women still do to be accepted in workplaces and in social life.)
Definitely deserves all the hype; and my hardback copy with the gold bits is beautiful too.