Washed ashore on the island of Janda Baik, sisters Muni and Satki have no memory of their former lives. Mak Genggang, the region’s foremost witch, knows a curse when she sees it and in the mortal Muna and the magical Satki, it’s clear as day to her what has happened. Unable, or unwilling, to answer the young women’s questions about their past, she sends them to Britain, where they will live under the protection of the controversial Sorceress Royal, in her academy for female thaumaturges. But the fastest path to the school goes directly through Fairyland, a dangerous place ruled by the powerful Queen of the Djinns and, by the time Muni emerges in London, Satki is nowhere to be found…
Zen Cho’s The True Queen occupies a space in the same wonderfully bizarre Regency-London-meets-rich-fantasy universe as her previous novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, though operates as a standalone novel. Born and raised in Malaysia, Cho begins her novel there, before plunging Muni into a story that benefits from a diverse cast, some strong historical research, and particularly brilliant fantastical world building.
Fuelled by Muni’s desperation to find her sister, and by the Fairy Queen’s sudden (yet oddly charming) declaration of war on the British thaumaturgy, the fantasy driven plot is delightfully blended with a writing style that feels as though it’s paying a delicious homage to the early 19th century setting. Words such as “shan’t”, “daresay”, and “bosom” are used liberally, and, bubbling just beneath the surface, is a simply wonderful sense of humour, best exemplified by the procession of alternatively silly, stuffy, and simpering aristocrats that await Muni in London.
But it’s not just society balls and wicked witches here. There’s also a healthy dose of social commentary too, from dark-skinned Muni, dressed up and paraded around ballrooms as an “exotic” sorceress, to the Sorceress Royal herself, running a school for female thaumaturges in a world where magic is exclusively the domain of the male. Even gentle teacher Henrietta has plenty to explore, living under the cloud of marrying a man against her will, all to save her family from ruin. Cho has much to say, and she’s certainly found a compelling and quirky way to say it.
Richly detailed, The True Queen is an unlikely, but incredibly successful, blend of historical setting, traditional fairy-tale, and modern humour. Come for the magic but stay for the society sniping – it’s honestly hard to decide which is more fun!
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Zen Cho’s The True Queen is out now, published by Pan Macmillan.