Book review: Malay magic meets Regency-era romance in Zen Cho's fantasy novel The True Queen

The twist is easily guessed at, but the joy of The True Queen is not so much in its plot but in how it trips along so winningly.
The twist is easily guessed at, but the joy of The True Queen is not so much in its plot but in how it trips along so winningly.PHOTO: MACMILLAN

FICTION

THE TRUE QUEEN

By Zen Cho

Pan Macmillan/ Hardback/ 369 pages/ $35.22/ Books Kinokuniya

****


Malaysian writer Zen Cho knocked it out of the park with her debut novel Sorcerer To The Crown. Its sequel, The True Queen, shares its scintillating setting - a Regency-era romp awash with fantasy - and is just as irrepressibly delightful.

In the 19th-century Straits of Malacca, two girls wash up on the shore of the island of Janda Baik after a violent storm. They have no memory of who they are, only that their names are Muna and Sakti and that the instinctive bond between them must mean they are sisters.

They are taken in by Mak Genggang, the witch-matriarch who is Janda Baik's guardian. Sensible Muna is content with working in the kitchen, while procacious Sakti, who possesses a gift for magic, chafes under the strict instruction of Mak Genggang.

But it turns out that there is a curse upon them. It has stolen Muna's magic and caused a hole to appear in Sakti's middle, which grows every day.

When a ploy to uncover the source of the curse earns the ire of the Resident of Malacca, William Farquhar - the same later instrumental in Singapore's founding as a British colony - Mak Genggang is forced to send the girls to England to seek the protection of its Sorceress Royal, Prunella Wythe.

The fastest route is the fraught path through the fairy realm, but Sakti vanishes along the way and Muna winds up alone in damp, dangerous England.

There, she is ensnared in a conspiracy involving a stolen amulet, an ancient coup and the Fairy Queen's desire to sack England and murder all its magicians. "It is no slight upon you," her emissary reassures the shocked English. "Her Majesty desires the death of all kinds of people, some of the very first consideration."

The twist is easily guessed at, but the joy of the novel is not so much in its plot but in how it trips along so winningly.

It continues the first book's subversion of Anglo-centric tropes with post-colonial elements, placing the pantun (a Malay poetic form) and the polong (a spirit enslaved in a bottle via blood magic) alongside Regency pastiche and European fairy lore.

Fans of the first book will be delighted to see the return of its effervescent heroine Prunella, who previously ascended from runaway mixed-race orphan to the first Sorceress Royal to the Crown.

She is now married to her predecessor Zacharias Wythe and runs an academy for female magicians with the help of her long-time friend Henrietta Stapleton, a mild-mannered magicienne burdened with a surfeit of opinionated family members.

She meets with considerable resistance from the men of English thaumaturgy, who still deem it disreputable that any woman should practise magic and have resorted to vandalism and harassment.

If there is anything to be lamented about this book, it is that there is not enough Prunella - though this makes room for Muna and Henrietta, women with a less showy sort of strength, to shine.

One awaits the final instalment of Cho's trilogy with bated breath - although this is also one of those series you wish would never end.

If you liked this, read: The Night Tiger by Choo Yangsze (Quercus, 2018, $27.95, Books Kinokuniya), in which a young houseboy in 1930s colonial Malaya is tasked to search for his dead master's missing finger, which turns up in the possession of a reluctant dance hall hostess.

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