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In many lands April 20, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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When I heard, after more than three years, that Zen Cho was returning to the fabulous world she’d first created in her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I was relieved and delighted. Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favourite books, with a fabulous cast of characters, vivid setting, and, most impressive of all to me, a story that managed the difficult feat of being at once hilariously funny, and sharp social commentary. On the back of that debut success, a sequel was announced almost immediately. But for authors, sometimes a beloved and well received first novel can be a double-edged sword, and Cho has written frankly about her struggles to build on the success of Sorcerer, starting and restarting the book that would eventually become The True Queen, as if the weight of expectation (her own, her readers’, her publisher’s) was an impediment. Knowing the backstory to this second book’s creation, I approached it with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. I shouldn’t have worried: Cho’s return to the world of Sorcerer to the Crown is a triumph. She’s once again perfected exactly the same deft navigation between light and darkness, humour and horror, whimsy and pointed sharpness that I loved in her first book. And although it’s set in the same universe — a fantasy Regency Britain in which certain individuals openly possess magical power, with a whole political and social structure set up to accommodate this — the point-of-view characters are different, meaning we explore the same world, but with fresh eyes.

Cover - The True Queen

In the first book, the focus was firmly on Cho’s heroine Prunella, the penniless orphaned daughter of an Indian mother and a white British father, with powerful magical abilities, and her love interest Zacharias, the first African Sorcerer-Royal, and their attempts to navigate the intrigues and plots of a racist, sexist society which tolerated them at best, and only grudgingly allowed them entrance, requiring them to be extraordinary where their white counterparts would have been accepted as ordinary or even mediocre. In The True Queen, our protagonist is Muna, a young woman who journeys to Britain from Janda Baik in the Malacca Strait, seeking help from Prunella on the advice of the witch Mak Genggang. Although Muna arrives in Britain alone, she had washed up on the shores of Janda Baik with her sister Sakti, having lost her memory. Sakti has magical abilities, while Muna has none, and the two become separated from each other while travelling through an otherworldly forest on their way to England. Muna arrives at Prunella’s door desperate to be reunited with her sister, but quickly finds herself embroiled in intrigues in both England and the otherworld. Prunella may have clawed her way to her position as Sorceress-Royal through sheer magical power, and created her school for magical girls and women on the strength of her own bluster and chutzpah, but her position — and that of her school — is far from secure, and enemies both human and supernatural are waiting for a moment of weakness so they can pounce. Muna steps into this hornets’ nest with secrets of her own, and must navigate the treacherous waters of aristocratic Regency England with little information and few allies.

The result is a book that focuses on the stories of women, and shows us the many different ways that women’s power can look. At its heart, of course, The True Queen is a story about two sisters, and that central relationship between Sakti and Muna — love, generosity, support and frustration — is one of my favourite things about the book. But there is also Prunella — revelling in her unconventionality while at the same time wielding people’s racist assumptions about her like a weapon — and the little community she’s trying to build in her school for magical girls and women. There’s Prunella’s friend and fellow magical educator Henrietta, trying to find a way to stay true to herself and her hidden magical abilities while also complying with the expectations of her family. Henrietta’s own relationship with her sisters is like a little echo of that of Muna and Sakti. And, best of all, Cho’s novel is full to the brim with fabulous, powerful older women: chief among them is the glorious Mak Genggang, who was one of my favourite presences in Sorcerer to the Crown, and I was so happy to see her back again in The True Queen.

This book is such a celebration of women, and in particular the networks they form among themselves, and the stories and adventures they have, unwritten, unnoticed and unrecorded. It’s a glorious and triumphant return to the world of Sorcerer to the Crown, and a very worthy successor. I can only hope that The True Queen is not Cho’s last foray into this universe, and that she finds new stories to tell about these characters, and this richly imagined world.

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