Book review: The True Queen by Zen Cho

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

When you typically think of fairies and the kind of home they might inhabit, you imagine ethereally winsome beings who drift around in naive delight, seeking to help those they encounter and awash with optimistically-uplifting joie de vivre.

There’s no doubt that’s an appealing vision and one which entities like Disney have made a fine old profit from exploiting, drawing our love of the supernatural bearing none of the flaws and drawbacks of our own scarred and badly-bruised world.

But the reality, suggests Zen Cho in her masterfully-engaging new novel The True Queen is a world that bears more than a passing resemblance to medieval courts of old, where magical beings practise a brutalist, zero gum game where power and only power is the goal.

Not so appealing now is it?

And yet, out of all this confronting, absolute dictatorship realpolitik, riven by gossip, plotting and backstabbing, Cho manages to craft an utterly compelling novel that draws you in from the first exquisitely well-written page, hurtling you on through a story that is rich with substance, emotion and imagination so powerfully-articulated that the world you inhabit for a far-too-short 360-plus pages becomes far more real than your own.

“Muna would have thought it would be interesting to read about magic, but if the scholars of English magic were to be believed, their thaumaturgy was a very different beast from the magic that permeated the witch’s household. Mak Genggang’s magic was a wild, living force, as everyday as the weather and as untameable. The English made their magic sound exceedingly dull in comparison. To understand what they said of it demanded all of Muna’s powers of concentration, so it was some time before she realised that Sakti had abandoned her books.” (P. 29)

Set in the Regency period, which ran roughly from the very late eighteenth century into the first couple of decades of the nineteenth, The True Queen begins on the magic-drenched island of Janda Baik near Malacca where a powerful local witch discover two sisters washed up on a beach, stripped of their memories and identity and very much in need of a home.

Sakti and Muna, the first magically-rich and impetuously-adventurous, the second far more mortal but possessor of vast reserves of empathy and humanity (and, in many ways, the beating heart and soul of the book), soon find a home with Mak Genggang but a nagging question lingers – who are they and why did someone curse them with magic so overwhelmingly powerful that not even the revered protector of an island the empire-hungry British covet can break it?

The answer may lie in far-off Britain where the Sorceress Royal, who presides over the contentious The Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy which is trying to right the gender imbalance among British practitioners of magic who are almost all male, and in the misogynistic, entitled spirit of the day, firm in the belief that the established order must prevail.

It’s into this world ruled by birth, wealth and power, and most certainly not by talent, merit or ability – Cho has some finely-insightful observations to make about hierarchy and rusted-on ruling classes and they way they exists in a thoughtless, entitled vacuum bereft of progress – that Muna arrives, her journey to Britian blighted by the literal disappearance of Sakti through the Unseen Realm or Fairyland, which is ruled over by a cruel Queen who many years seized the throne from its rightful heir, the titular character of the book.

Zen Cho (image courtesy official Zen Cho Twitter account)

No one is allowed to mention this person’s name, on pain of death by the ruling monarch who surrounds herself with spirits of many kinds, all of them in deathly fear but none of them game to confront her cruelty or worst excesses, and who is refuses to have anything to do with the magical mortals of Britain.

It’s a wholly beguiling premise that Cho brings to dazzlingly-real life in a story that is full of intrigue, adventure and plotting, but also a huge amount of heart and humanity as Muna begins to form friendships, and possibly more, with a range of characters, all of whom will captivate in ways you never see coming and enjoy to the scintillatingly-exciting end.

The True Queen is in many ways fantasy reinvented, a brilliantly-clever take on Fairyland and the mortals who interact with it, that asks all kinds of interesting questions about what it means to be human, about power and privilege and what the worlds beyond our own might be like.

In doing so, by taking us to realms beyond our imagining but thankfully not Cho’s, we are led into a vibrant landscape of magic and mortality, of places both in our realm and without, where anything is possible and where navigating it, even as you are still discovering who you are and what you are capable of, as Muna is, becomes an adventure rife with challenges and rewards.

“Muna remembered this. It had happened just this way, once before. She had been caught like a fish in the net, while her sister looked on, unmoved …

She could not scream, for she could not breathe, but whether it was terror or magic that had taken her breath, she could not tell. Perhaps she was dying. But the thought did not bring relief, for if that was so, she had died before, and that mean one could die again and again; suffering did not have to have an end.” (P. 235)

The brilliance of this enchanting book which demands you read it in great compulsive chunks, all of it at once if time permits so page-turning compelling is it, is that it tells a story that is fantastical in a myriad of ways and yet very much grounded in the solidity of friendships and relationships, of love and connection, of betrayal and loss.

There is much going on, in all the very best of ways, and yet Cho never once drops a thread, never neglects a character and manages to tie it all together in the final act in a manner that is satisfyingly completist without once feeling twee or narratively-covenient.

The True Queen has it all – complexity, heart, intense, gorgeous readability, imaginative premise and immersive storytelling that draws you in so completely, you could be forgiven for wondering if anything exists beyond the world/s she has created.

Reading it transports you away, as all good books should so in some fashion, wholly and completely, creating a bubble around you that is suffused with meaning and emotional resonance and an understanding, one surely needed even in this day and age, that appearances, both when it comes to people, societies and events, can be deceiving, and that believing in the very best, even in the face of the very worst, is no fool’s errand but quite possibly, the very best way to live your life.

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