The True Queen by Zen Cho
I wish to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Pan Macmillan
Price - £16.99
Published – Out Now
The enchanted island of Janda Baik, in the Malay Archipelago, has long been home to witches, Muna and her sister Sakti wake up on its shores under a curse, which has quite stolen away their memories. Their only hope of salvation lies in distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal runs a controversial academy for female magicians. But the pair travel via the formidable Fairy Queen’s realm, where Sakti simply disappears.
To save her sister, Muna must learnt to navigate Regency London’s high society and trick the English into believing she’s a magical prodigy. But when the Sorceress Royal’s friends become accidentally embroiled in a plot – involving the Fairy Queen’s contentious succession – Muna is drawn right in. She must also find Sakti, break their curse and somehow stay out of trouble. But if fairyland’s True Queen does finally return, trouble may find her first…
I believe it was the noted philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi who first pointed out that truth depends upon our point of view. From a privileged vantage point deep within a society you may see yourselves as the highest of the high while the other classes and countries all are clearly inferior. In Zen Cho’s debut novel The Sorcerer Royal (and yes you should also be picking that one up if you haven’t but don’t worry you can read these two books in any order) we saw Regency England under a magical lens and its reaction both a black man in one of its most privileged positions; and, an even more magically powerful woman threatening that society’s sense of order. In this fantastic follow up we take a slightly different position to look at English society not just from within but also the outside. Throw in fae politics and dragons and it’s a sumptuously intelligent novel that makes you laugh and think at the same time.
The story initially centres on two sisters; Muna and Sakti arriving with no memory of their lives in the Malay Archipelago and falling happily under the wing of the extremely powerful witch Mak Genggang. She discovers that Sakti has powerful magic while Muna has none, but both are suffering from a curse that has been used on the two sisters; which is starting to make them slowly vanish from reality. The girls investigate and discover a link to an English magician named Midsomer and so with Mak’s help they are sent through the realm of the Fairy Queen to meet Mak’s ally the Sorceress Royal to hopefully find some answers before it’s too late. Unfortunately, Muna gets separated and she arrives in the home of the most powerful magician in England who is expecting a powerful witch of her own.
Muna is thrust into a society that struggles to recognise women as equal in any way let alone that those from foreign countries should be treated as equals. She must tread the path carefully as clearly someone in this magical community understands this curse and wishes her family ill. Add into this one of the Fairy Queen’s traditional culling of suspected traitors from her court and an ultimatum on England the stakes get incredibly high and Muna must work out who she can trust before it’s too late.
If you’ve not read a Zen Cho story before you’re in for a treat. The story is always moving and never goes in the direction you expect. This is a story with a fine eye for pointing a finger at all types of societies failing and in particular the English magical community is shown to be less a beacon of civilisation and more a warring set of factions (often unsurprisingly white and male) who seem to disregard the needs of anyone but their own families and even then not adverse to marrying daughters off to pay the bills. Muna being a complete outsider though actually been shows even those we would expect to be sympathetic i.e. the Sorceress Royal’s group in a less than positive light. Muna is seen as exotic; they don’t understand her faith or traditions and its hard for may to assume she can talk and think for her own. Prunella the Sorceress Royal was a charismatic and sympathetic lead in the first novel but this time she’s more adjacent rather than central to the plot and she can be seen by those looking on seen as unsympathetic or too focused on her own internal drive to understand magic rather than simple help someone because it’s the right thing to do.
Muna discovers that just by virtue of being polite to the various spirits of magic she can get much more done than most magicians. While this can make the reader feel torn in their loyalties its perhaps useful to remind ourselves that our country and ways of life may not make sense to anyone else visiting for the first time and that we can be unbearably smug about how great and progressive we think ourselves. Cho interestingly later shows us life in the Fairy Queen’s court and while there does seem to be a greater focus on killing (and eating) your rivals there is also a little bit of me that struggled to see exactly why these feuding fae powers were worse than most of the magicians we had just met…
Two other pluses for me shone through. Firstly the humour be it through people’s misunderstandings of one another or the narrator making light of the traditions of the UK all help make this a novel that is nimble and fast moving between characters and locations; this in addition helps the reader tense up when the story gets more action focused and the risks to the main characters we’ve grown to care about get more pronounced. Another thing I loved was the way that relationships were depicted. We return to the fae/human relationship of Rollo and Damerell and its interesting to see the fairy realm doesn’t seem too concerned that these two males are in love with one another. Another plotline has a growing relationship between two women that when they finally admit their feelings for one another was soooo worth the wait. While clearly loving its setting, this is definitely a 21st century novel with things to say about our own world. The story is packed with little side plots and relationships that I think all support the wider novel. To those wanting just action and adventure the pace may seem sedate but for me this is a world to savour and investigate slowly.
An author who this tale reminded me of in a strange way of Diana Wynn Jones who created magical societies and often used them to highlight our own weaknesses. This is clearly a novel for adults, but I think intelligent and funny fantasy is one of the hardest things to get right and Zen Cho matches Jones for that ear for people and classes talking to one another but not initially understanding one another. A thoughtful, intelligent and heart-warming novel that I think lovers of intelligent fantasy should be picking up straightaway.