The True Queen: more magical mayhem

Book cover: The True Queen - Zen Cho (decorated text, cyan on black, with a snake pendant around the title)When Muna loses her beloved sister in Fairyland, she turns to the Sorceress Royal for help. But the Fairy Queen is threatening to invade England if a stolen necklace isn’t returned. A missing sister is the least of Prunella’s worries…

I came into The True Queen straight off the back of a dark, action-packed space opera that unexpectedly gave me all the feelings. I was aiming for a delightful end-of-SciFiMonth palate cleansing and change of pace; instead, I got full-on whiplash. You see, I’d forgotten just how whimsical Sorcerer to the Crown was – in tone and plot, if not in context – and The True Queen proceeds in much the same vein. In retrospect, picking up The True Queen when I did probably wasn’t the wisest choice, as I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to roll with it… All of which is a long-winded way of saying I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I expected to, but it’s probably my own fault.

The story opens on the beach of Janda Baik, where two girls have washed up in a storm with no memories and a curse apeace. Muna and Sakti are instantly inseparable: self-declared sisters, determined to discover who they are and who has cursed them.

In many ways, the girls are opposites. Where Muna is quiet and respectful, Sakti is self-centred and brash. If Muna hesitates, Sakti rushes in. While Sakti becomes Mak Genggang’s apprentice and chafes under her instruction, Muna helps in the kitchens, and grows fond of the irascible benefactor. Sakti is brimming with magic, but Muna’s has been stolen along with their memories. And terrifyingly, however solid Muna may appear, Sakti is quite literally beginning to disappear.

Eager to cure their curse, the girls put Mak Genggang in a compromising position with the English raja of Malacca (no, not like that, tch). Mak Genggang has no wish to concede to English demands, but insufficient power to hold them at bay if they come to Janda Baik in force. Muna’s rather clever response is to suggest they are sent to England to study magic with Prunella and perhaps find out who cursed them.

The catch? They must leave immediately, which means travelling through Faerie. Because a quick trip through Faerie never ended badly for anyone, right? Needless to say, Sakti disappears en route and Muna finds herself in Prunella’s care pretending she has magical abilities.

The thing is, this should be 100% my jam: even writing this review I’m giggling at the set-up (in spite of the fact that amnesia as a trope tends to make my eyes roll). It should have been a joy, and I wish I’d enjoyed it more.

Thankfully, my love affair with Prunella continues undiminished – she is every bit as glorious here as in Sorcerer to the Crown, confident in her abilities and comfortable with her position. On the other hand, the Establishment remains as unwelcoming as ever: the attitudes of the racist patriarchy are once again on full display, and Muna has fewer weapons to fight it than Prunella.

…or so you might think. One of my criticisms of The True Queen is that Muna is perhaps a little too like Prunella in some ways: quickly fired up (although to be fair she’s given more than enough provocation for her initial meekness to evaporate like milk), brave, resourceful and cannily given to making rapid decisions that benefit herself first and foremost.

Unlike Prunella, however, Muna is racked by uncertainty. She acts as she does out of need rather than instinct, driven by devotion to Sakti and determination to recover her even when the Sorceress Royal gives her up as a lost cause (tut, Prunella, I know you’ve got a lot going on but.. tut).

But however much I enjoyed Muna (and I quickly grew fond of her), I never really warmed to the book itself. At its best, the humour is wry, delivering pointed social observations that cut to the quick. But in places it embraces full-on farce, relying on the characters saying things the reader knows to be wrong so that you can laugh at their blunders. This is always a big ask for me, and I remained uncharmed by the running gags, although I’ll admit that a lady losing her Virtu made me crack a smile.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy for those in the right frame of mind. Themes of emancipation and sisterhood, exuberant characters driven by love and loyalty. I remain delighted that Muna and Sakti are Muslim Malay, and when romance peeked around a corner I found it was a queer ship I could happily board (also, and entirely separately: queer dragons FTW!)

But in the end, I am left conflicted. I’m fairly certain I’ll reread The True Queen (without reading a heart-wrenching space opera first) just so I can revisit this review and laugh at how wrong I got it. But my initial response is to be slightly underwhelmed, however much I love the individual ingredients.

I received a free eARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, but I also bought a hardback because it was gorgeous.