REVIEW: The True Queen by Zen Cho
Dear Ms. Cho,
Three and a half years ago, Sunita and I reviewed your first novel, a regency-set fantasy titled Sorcerer to the Crown. I liked it enough to request an ARC of the sequel, The True Queen. I have to admit, though, that I was a little apprehensive because of the long wait between books. But my worry was misplaced; The True Queen is even better than its predecessor.
The novel begins when two women, Muna and Sakti, come to consciousness during a storm, near the village of Janda Baik in Malaysia. Muna and Sakti recognize that they are sisters, though both are missing their memories. Sakti is haughty, opinionated, and possesses magical abilities. Muna is humbler, less certain, and has no magic whatsoever.
The local witch and wise woman, Mak Genggang, takes in Sakti and Muna and tells them that a curse worker stole their memories. The witch begins to teach Sakti how to use her magic, but Sakti feels restless. Muna, the main character, works in the kitchens alongside the other people and the lamiae Mak Genggang is also sheltering, and she enjoys it.
Then Sakti reveals to Muna that a magical hole is forming in her stomach, and she is sure that Mak Genggang is the curse worker responsible for that, as well for the loss of their memories. Muna is certain that isn’t true.
To forestall leaving Mak Genggang’s home, as Sakti wants them to do, Muna agrees to sneak into the house of Tuan Farquhar, the Resident (aka Raja to Sakti and Muna) of Malacca. Farquhar collects spells and Muna suggests they use one of his spells to discover who cursed them.
Just before they get caught in Farquhar’s house, Muna and Sakti learn that the curse worker’s name is Midsomer. And because they caused an international incident by infiltrating the Resident’s house, Mak Genggang sends them to England, to her friend the Sorceress Royal, Prunella Wythe.
En route, while walking through a forest on the border between England and Fairy Within, Sakti is sucked into Fairyland. Unable to find Sakti, Muna completes the journey to London. In England, Muna is mistaken for the magical Sakti and welcomed. She is given housing in Prunella’s academy, where young ladies are taught how to use their magic.
There, Muna makes the acquaintance of Prunella, three students and their two teachers, Henrietta Stapleton and Clarissa Midsomer. With the aid of a temperamental djinn that Mak Genggang entrusted to Sakti, Muna is able to use a tiny bit of magic. But her goal at all times, one for which she must continue her deception no matter how much she likes her new friends, is to locate Sakti and bring her home.
Meanwhile, an amulet belonging to the Fairy Queen, known as the Virtu, has disappeared from the hoard of a dragon who was storing it for her and the queen is convinced the English have stolen it. Her emissary, the Duke of the Navel of the Seas, arrives in England with the intention of eating everyone there in revenge. Prunella manages to delay him by suggesting he search for the thief first, but if the Virtu isn’t found, England will not survive.
When the fate of the amulet intersects with Muna’s quest to save her sister, Muna contrives to travel to Fairyland in a desperate bid to find and retrieve both.
This novel is a sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown but it has a different set of main characters, so I think it is a decent starting point if you want to skip book one. It is also a charming fantasy and two of the ingredients from Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown are present: a Heyer-influenced sense of humor and a stealth romance.
The Malaysian heroine is a new and welcome ingredient, giving this book a fresher voice than Sorcerer to the Crown had, and The True Queen feels more surefooted than its prequel. Muna is easy to like—even stranded in England with her sister lost, unable to communicate with Mak Genggang, her determination to save Sakti still causes her misgivings when it requires her to deceive others. There is also an earnestness to her character that adds to her appeal.
The way Muna is contrasted with Sakti highlights her strengths. Where Sakti is decisive to a fault, Muna weighs her actions more carefully. Where Sakti’s arrogance leads her to assume she is always right, Muna is willing to admit her mistakes. Her journey is one in which she gains confidence in herself, but it is handled so subtly that when she and Henrietta save the day, it’s both utterly believable and a victory.
Henrietta, who plays a larger role here than she did in Sorcerer to the Crown, is sweet and gentle, anxious at times, but she is still brave. She’s determined to marry a suitor she doesn’t care for to salvage her family from financial ruin and so that her sisters won’t have to, and when she must go to Fairy Within and face danger there, she rises to the occasion.
The romance between Muna and Henrietta is slow burn and sneaks up on the reader. They begin as gracious strangers, evolve into friends, and then figure out that they love each other. They treat one another with care when they can, and when they can’t, it’s still evident that they care about one another. Their relationship is touching and sweet without ever being cloying.
Most of the important characters from Sorcerer to the Crown appear here as secondary figures but since Henrietta has a larger role than that, we also become acquainted with her sisters and parents. The sisters are loyal to Henrietta. Watching them deal with “Not Henrietta,” the robotic and magical double Henrietta leaves in her place when she has to go out of the house, is amusing, disturbing and shows how much they love their sister.
As Muna tries to work out whether it was Clarissa or another Midsomer who cursed her and Sakti, we get to know Clarissa Midsomer better too. There is more dimension to Clarissa than I remember her having in Sorcerer to the Crown, so she’s an interesting villain. Clarissa is snobbish and convinced that her white, aristocratic privilege is her due, but at the same time, despite upholding the patriarchal social order, she longs for more magical power than she can easily grasp as a woman.
Also prominent in the story are Prunella (still amoral but friendly), Mak Genggang (still warm but critical), the djinn (in search of some small but pernicious command to fulfill), Georgiana without Ruth and Rollo (both dragons, one fearsome and cantankerous, the other sweet), Rollo’s debonair and human lover, Damerell, and the Fairy Queen. The queen’s agent, the Duke of the Navel of the Seas, is another new character, smarmy and threatening.
Zacharias appears in the book, but the part he plays is smaller. Generally speaking, it’s the women who are at the forefront here.
There is a lot of humor in the book and much of it is embedded in the narration and dialogue. For example:
When Henrietta Stapleton found her in the attic, Prunella was too hot and vexed to receive with patience the news that Miss Liddiard had retreated to the bed, felled by an illness. Miss Liddiard taught the eldest class, and it was inconsiderate of her to be poorly on this of all days.
“A female may be poor or delicate or a spinster, but it does seem ill-advised of Miss Liddiard to combine all three.”
I was frequently reminded of Heyer, though the book isn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as most of the Heyers I’ve read.
The magic is incorporated into the story in a sometimes-oversized way and the pacing is fast, giving the book a frenetic feel. That and a small plot contrivance were my main nitpicks. I also found the name Damerell distracting, since I associate it so strongly with Heyer.
On the whole I enjoyed The True Queen very much. It’s a delightful book and the romance is adorable. B+/A-.