Review: The True Queen
The True Queen by Zen Cho is set in the same world as her British Fantasy Award winning Sorcerer to the Crown, although it is not a direct continuation of the story and can be read as a standalone novel.
This tale focuses on Sakti and Muna from the island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago, but we also return to the Regency styles England to catch up with Prunella and Zachariah, the protagonists of the previous novel.
Of course when I say Regency England, I don't mean to imply that this is pure historical fiction, it does have its fantasy twists with magic, dragons, sorcerers and a Queen of fairyland, just for starters.
The tale really focuses around the question of identity, the protagonists Muna and Sakti were found without memories on the island, they don't know where they came from or who they are, they believe they are sisters but have no memory of family life. They were given shelter and a place to stay by the witch Mak Genggang, but Muna in particular does not entirely trust this relationship. Muna has no magic, so does not see why Mak would value her or why she continues to support the sisters. Without a history, she feels she has nothing to offer beyond the current time, no past and perhaps, therefore, no future. While interesting in a fantasy, it perhaps also reflects real life, the idea that if for some reason someone has no secure past, or perhaps a past which is not understood by the culture an individual is currently living in, then the sense of displacement might be similar. Despite the fact that both characters work hard and have valuable skills, they still feel beholden and as if they are being helped out of a sense of charity. This means when things start to go wrong, they don't immediately trust and ask for help from any of the people in their life. Muna has to choose whether to take the risk of losing her own identity completely to save the life of her sister, again underlining the point that identity and life and so entwined.
I'll confess that I know very little about Malay culture, but given the background of the author, I think it's reasonable to conclude that her own heritage has influenced the creation of the enchanted island of Janda Baik. The island certainly feels fully thought out, even though the characters do not spend much time there. The glimpses are tantalising and I hope future novels explore this further. Janda Baik in our world is a small landlocked village in Malaysia, whether this has any significance for the author rather than being simply a good name, would be entirely speculation on my part.
The magical creatures and people of fairyland are a more prominent part of the narrative in ts novel as opposed to the previous. The dual nature of the dragons is perhaps similar to those in the novels of James Bennett (affiliate link), although the overall feel of the novel is quite different to his. The "lesser" fairies are interesting, suggesting a hierarchy based on size or ability.
Within the different cultures in the book, the changing roles and importance of women is quite stark. In Fairyland, the Queen is clearly in change, even if this is not an indication of the role of women in Fairyland it does suggest a slightly more egalitarian approach than the portrayal of England, stuck in Regency sensibilities.
The tale goes at a good pace and has interesting and engaging characters, a bit like an old fashioned classic, but with much more fire.
If you have read this one, do drop us a line below with your thoughts?
Here is the affiliate link if you would like to buy a copy.
here is a link to my review of the earlier novel Sorcerer to the Crown.