Before I write anything else, I'll mention that I'm hard to please when it comes to alternate history, because I've seldom been impressed by books and stories that can be categorized as alternate history. Fortunately I was positively surprised by Christopher Nuttall's The Royal Sorceress, because it turned out to be an entertaining and well written book.
I don't remember reading anything like this before, because Christopher Nuttall has chosen a bit different kind of a way of writing about steampunkish Victorian society. This book can be seen as a fantasy and alternate history story about a woman's place in Victorian society, and the differences between aristocrats and common people. It can also be seen as the growing up story of Gwen.
It's possible that readers may think that this kind of a fantasy book is heavy to read and requires quite a lot of knowledge about history etc, but in this case the story is so entertaining that the reader just has to enjoy it. The author writes fluently about the events and doesn't overwhelm the reader with heavy historical prose. (It is, however, possible that readers who are familiar with historical events will get more out of this book than other readers.)
This book contains plenty of humour. I was a bit surprised by the amount of humour, because usually there isn't much humour in alternate history books. I think it's great that the author has had courage to add humour to the book, because it adds a lot of charm to it. I especially enjoyed reading about the food fight between Gwen and the male apprentices - it was fun.
Here's a bit of information about the plot:
Lady Gwendolyn Crichton (Gwen) is a young lady, who is tired of her mother's attempts to make her a respectable young woman. Gwen is only interested in magic, but unfortunately the society doesn't allow women to use magic. She has all the magic powers that a person can have and that's why Master Thomas (the Royal Sorcerer) and other people become interested in her. When Gwen is asked to become the Royal Sorceress, she's very happy and excited about it, because it feels like all her dreams have finally come true. To her mother's horror, she accepts the proposition and begins her training under Master Thomas. Gwen has to work hard, because she has a lot to learn about magic. She has learned things by herself, but she can't control magic... At the same time Jack tries to bring down the government. He calls himself Captain Swing. He knows how to magic and he controls all the powers just as Gwen does. His actions cause havoc and chaos in London, but he does his actions for the right reasons, because the common people are ruthlessly exploited by those of noble birth...
Christopher Nuttall writes about an interesting alternate Victorian society, because in this book England is different from what it is in real life. Magic plays an important role in the society, and England is one of the ruling nations in the world. The author writes about fascinating "what if" situations (for example, England has won the American War of Independence). I think I'd better not write more about these "what if" situations, because writing more about them would spoil the story.
Although this book is entertaining, it's also - in an entertaining way - a surprisingly shocking vision about a woman's place among powerful men. Women seldom have magical powers and only men are educated to handle magic, because women must be good and obedient wives. It was interesting to read how Gwen felt that she was different from other young women, because she wasn't interested in the same things as other women of her age - she wanted to do something with her life.
I liked the characters very much, because Christopher Nuttall has created realistic characters. Gwen and the other characters are beliavable and they have their own personalities.
I think it's great that Gwen is described as a powerful young woman, who doesn't want to submit to the rules and norms of the male dominated society. She has thoughts and feelings of her own and she wants to do something else than be a mindless and pretty wife to a noble man.
What makes this book especially interesting is that Gwen is the only woman in England who has an amazing amount of magic powers and can control all the talents. These powers make her a potential Royal Sorceress, because she's the only who has as much power as the Royal Sorcerer. Because the Royal Sorcerer is going to retire in the future, Gwen must take his place. (I'll write more about magic after the next couple of paragraphs.)
Jack is also an important character, because he's trying to bring down the government. He is a renegade magician and he has the powers of a Master Magician. Reading about Jack's actions is fun, because he feels that people have to pay for their crimes. If needed, he can use magic as a weapon and knows what he's doing with it.
Gwen's teacher, Master Thomas, is an interesting character, because he teaches Gwen several things and tries to be patient with her actions. Gwen is at times a bit impatient and loses her temper, but Master Thomas tries to show her how to control her temper and powers. He's a wise man who has a lot to offer to Gwen.
The author paints a vivid picture of the social conflict between the common people and the aristocrats, because the rich people shamelessly oppress the poor. He uses the characters and their actions to show what's happening. For example, Gwen is a bit shocked when she realizes how certain things are handled ("out of sight, out of mind" seems to apply to several things).
Christopher Nuttall writes perfectly about the action scenes and all things related to magic. Reading about Gwen's education is fun, because the author explains magical things in an interesting scientific way. There are different talents and most people can only use one talent, but if a person can use all the talents, he/she is a Master. Because Gwen can control all the talents, she's a Master Magician (that's why she was asked to become the Royal Sorceress).
One of the best things in this book is that magic doesn't make a person invincible. People who use magic powers can be arrogant and they can believe that they can't die, but everybody can die. Killing is a skilled magician can be difficult, but it's possible. This is good, because magic and magical powers are often used as deus ex machina and that can be annoying for the reader.
I also enjoyed reading about the author's descriptions of the various places. He writes enthusiastically about the streets of London, houses and palaces. It feels like the reader is really reading about London during the Industrial Revolution, because everything feels genuine (all the filth of the streets and the poverty of the people feels realistic).
Because The Royal Sorceress is the author's debut book, there are a couple of flaws in it, but on the whole it's a fine achievement and definitely worth reading. I have nothing bad to say about it, because I liked the story and the characters.
Christopher Nuttall is currently writing a sequel to The Royal Sorceress, The Great Game, so readers who enjoy this book will soon be able continue reading about the Royal Sorceress. It'll be interesting to see how the author continues the story.
The Royal Sorceress is an excellent fantasy book, which combines fantasy, steampunk and alternate history elements in a successful way. In my opinion it's one of the most interesting and entertaining alternate history books ever written. If you're interested in fantasy, alternate history and magic, you should read this book, because it's good and fun entertainment.
Rating this book was a bit difficult for me, because I couldn't decide if I should give it four or five stars. After careful consideration I decided to give it five stars for its entertainment values, because it was a bit different kind of an alternate history book and it was fun to read about Gwen and her education.