Malaysian author's debut fantasy novel goes out to the world

Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown is about how the supreme sorcerer of the realm fights off his rivals.
Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown is about how the supreme sorcerer of the realm fights off his rivals.PHOTO: DARREN JOHNSON/ IDJ PHOTOGRAPHY

Malaysian author Zen Cho, whose debut novel is set in a historical fantasy version of England, borrows from local folklore

It is Regency romance meets True Singapore Ghost Stories.

That, at least, is how London- based Malaysian author Zen Cho describes her debut novel Sorcerer To The Crown, which hits Singapore bookstores in the middle of next month.

The manuscript scored her a three-book deal with two major publishing houses - Penguin Random House, which is releasing the novel in the United States on Tuesday under its Ace imprint, and Pan Macmillian, the book's British publisher.

Set in a historical fantasy version of England, Sorcerer To The Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the supreme sorcerer of the realm, as his rivals make vicious attempts on his life. Other leading characters include Prunella Gentleman, a mysterious orphan who seeks the magical education denied to women, as well as the temperamental witch Mak Genggang.


With the transatlantic slave trade and the conquest of India in mind, Cho, 29, created characters such as Zacharias, a black Englishman who was enslaved as a child, and Prunella, who has mixed white and Indian heritage.

On the inspiration for these characters, she said: "I wanted to explore the centrality of the British territories to the British Empire - to Britain itself.

"What I'm interested in is this sort of colonial history," she added. "I kind of think of it as uncovering what is already there."

In her Skype interview with Life, she downplayed the achievement of her international three-book deal, declining to share details of her advance.

She instead shared her (incredibly efficient) writing process. She started work on this novel three years ago, completing her first draft in just over half a year. She secured an agent in July 2013 and the book was sold by the end of last year.

Juggling a blossoming writing career with a day job as a lawyer is tough, but the Cambridge- educated Cho said she manages by working part-time on a three-day work week, supported by her husband, an academic.

She also writes in the evenings. She added: "It's amazing what you can do in an hour."

In her case, that is an eye-popping one thousand words churned out each hour. Right now, she is busy preparing the sequel to Sorcerer To The Crown.

Although there has been a proliferation of South-east Asian fantasy fiction in English - such as the works of Singaporean short story writer J.Y. Yang, Filipino writer and editor Charles A. Tan, and LaotianAmerican writer Bryan Thao Worra - Cho demurs at being called a South-east Asian author.

"Is there necessarily going to be much similarity between my work and that of someone who lives in the Philippines?" she asked.

She also pointed out that it is anachronistic to refer to characters like Mak Genggang as Malaysian in a pre-1963 historical setting, emphasising that the region has had a rich history before the colonial period and before colonial borders were turned into modern nation-states.

Labels aside, Cho is nonetheless no stranger to writing fantasy stories with a distinctly local twist. She started publishing her short fiction in 2010 with online fantasy magazines such as Strange Horizons.

Several of these stories ended up in her short story collection Spirits Abroad, published by Malaysian independent press Buku Fixi last year. It won a Crawford Fantasy Award, which celebrates an author's debut fantasy book.

Sorcerer To The Crown is her first finished novel, although she had made several stabs at novels in the past. She has also self-published a romance novella, The Perilous Life Of Jade Yeo (2012), whose titular character is a Malayan writer in 1920s London.

"Having written long-form, I suspect I'm going to stick to it, not because I don't like short stories, but because I like the play of it," said Cho. "A lot of my new ideas are all for novellas or long short stories, so I might stay in this space for a while."

Her works are often whimsical tales of the supernatural with a hint of romance, such as The House Of Aunts, about a Chinese family of pontianaks in rural Malaysia, published by the online magazine GigaNotoSaurus in 2011.

Cho said that this is because she grew up on a steady diet of romance novels, which she calls "comfort reading", and has always aspired to write local alternatives to the British literature of her childhood.

At the same time, she also enjoyed True Singapore Ghost Stories as a schoolgirl in Selangor, and said that when she borrows from spooky folklore in her own writing, "I find it interesting and I find it scary. I'm almost trying to explain it to myself".

She added cheekily that her parents, whose principal occupation has been the sale of electrical appliances, are a little taken aback by the themes of her writing.

"My mum, especially, doesn't like reading my stories. And they don't like it a lot because there's hantu (ghosts)."

• Sorcerer To The Crown will be available from the middle of next month at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Spooky tales inspire lawyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe