Author: Zen Cho | Publisher: Penguin Random House
The enchanted island of Janda Baik, in the Malay Archipelago, has long been home to witches. And Muna and her sister Sakti wake 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 learn 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 absolutely adored Sorcerer to the Crown, so I was beyond excited to read the second book in the series, The True Queen. And I’ll say right up front: I had high expectations! I wasn’t disappointed. Mostly…
The worldbuilding in the Sorcerer to the Crown series is second to none. The characters operate on a quasi-19th century stage; a reimagined Victorian London, with links to faerie and a guild of magicians. It’s clever, thoughtful, and immersive. Every detail is carefully conveyed in minute brushstrokes; all “show” and no “tell”. Every single aspect has a tactility which tickles the imagination. I will say, since I loved the Victorian England setting so much in the first book, I had my doubts about the switching of focus to tropical Janda Baik – but, actually, I found it really interesting. It presents a strong contrast to Victorian London, no question. But, more than that, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a colonial period – with a fantasy twist. Reading The True Queen feels like truly stepping into another world.
I adore Zen Cho’s characters. The strong, wilful, slightly ruthless Sorcereress Royal; the slightly nerdy but attractive Zacharius Wythe; and the eccentric Mak Genggang. These are definitely characters who stick with you. I love the feminist overtones, the way the characters are engaged in an active challenge to gender roles in a patriarchal society. And every single character, major and minor, is multifaceted, interesting, and well-defined.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the choice to make the protagonist, Muna, a practising Muslim. I have to say, while I have read several fantasy books recently which are loosely based on the history of places and peoples which are, now, predominantly Muslim – I don’t think I’ve ever read a mainstream fantasy with a Muslim main character. Generally, modern fantasy tends to shy away from talking about religion, using an imaginative approach to creating belief systems. In that space, perhaps it’s not so surprising that there would be no Muslims, Christians, or Jews. But, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air to see someone take on the challenge of diversity so boldly. It felt much more representative of modern society to have a cast of not only gay and straight, white and non-white characters, but also people with different religious beliefs. I’m so pleased to see it. If fiction doesn’t represent us all, then it represents none of us.
The plot is exciting, paced with runaway enthusiasm, and with plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing. It’s a grand adventure, and hard to put down! That being said, it didn’t feel it was as strongly plotted as Sorcerer to the Crown. The True Queen simply didn’t hang together as well, or have the same fantastic tension, as the first book.
And, as much as I enjoyed The True Queen, I do have one minor niggle. One teensy little thing which, for me, spoiled the glaze slightly: Henrietta’s love life. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say, in this book, Henrietta’s love life is a subject of some discussion. Will she marry the obnoxious thaumaturgy to save her family from financial ruin? Is she secretly in love with Zacharius Wythe? It’s a fairly key sub-plot, and I found the resolution a little unsatisfactory. It felt like a point was being made about diversity, but it had to be shoehorned in. There was no warning, no warm-up, and it just didn’t ring true to me. I’ve come to the conclusion that either it wasn’t true to the characters, or it simply wasn’t given enough lead-in. It felt like an afterthought to wrap things up and add diversity points.
All in all, I wouldn’t say that The True Queen escaped the second book curse entirely. It was good – no question about it. I definitely enjoyed it. But it didn’t quite rise to level of genius of Sorcerer to the Crown. The True Queen just lacked some of the elegance, tension, and subtlety of character development which were so wonderful in the first book. It wasn’t bad… But I went in with high expectations, which I’m not sure were entirely met. But I do admire Zen Cho’s writing, I’m still excited by the series, and definitely in for a third book!
Have you read this series? What did you think?