Two sisters, bereft of memory and washed up on the midnight beach of an unknown land. Their quest, ostensibly, is a familiar one: to excavate their elusive past, and thereby unearth themselves. This search for identity positions these displaced sisters on a trajectory of international intrigue spanning continents and magical dimensions. The True Queen thus twists from the shores of the (precariously) independent nation of Janda Baik in the Malay peninsula, through the knotty lands of fairy, to the petty parlours of Regency England. Playful and bouncy, The True Queen nimbly waltzes with the weighty histories of British colonialism, proving that postcolonial ripostes can be delivered with a lightness of touch, through the medium of historical fantasy and romance.
The relatively short career of Malaysian fantasy writer Zen Cho has already been much lauded. In 2015 she won the Crawford Fantasy Award for her short story collection Spirits Abroad. She has been nominated for the Campbell award for Best New Writer, with her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown winning the 2016 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, whilst also becoming a finalist for the Locus Awards Best First Novel. Continuing with such accomplishments, her story “If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again” won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
The True Queen is the second book of a trilogy, continuing on from the success of Sorcerer. Known for its crisp Austenesque dialogue, bickering thaumaturges, and haughty dragons, Sorcerer follows the exploits of both Zacharias Wythe, the first black Sorcerer Royal, and the spirited magicienne Prunella, who is doubly othered as a talented user of a craft prohibited to women, and as a woman of colour. Throughout Sorcerer, Zacharias and Prunella try to rescue an imperilled and depleted English magic, whilst navigating a society which is mostly hostile to their very existence. As such, Sorcerer, despite the occasional intercession from Mak Genggang (the “arch-witch” of Janda Baik), highlights the centrality of colonialism to Regency-era Britain from within. True Queen instead depicts the view from outside Britain, on the outskirts of colonialism, a gaze returned.
As with many romantic comedies, True Queen begins with a stormy calamity. Immediately setting a volatile scene, we are told “the trunk split with extraordinary violence, but there was an inevitability to its destruction. So, too, with her. As she was sundered in two, there was no surprise—only pain” (p. 1). Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Muna and her sister Sakti emerge from the storm-blasted wreckage, dragging a disruptive destiny, inevitably, in their wake. As with Twelfth Night, True Queen is replete with identity confusion and misidentifications, established immediately with, “even her own self, for she could not remember what she was called” (p. 2). Swiftly afterwards the sisters find themselves in Janda Baik, under the protection, remonstrations, and tutelage of Mak Genggang, who declares the sisters to be cursed.
Janda Baik is foregrounded as a stronghold for witches, whose magics tenuously protect the island nation’s independence. Alongside the powerful Mak Genggang, the island is populated by lamiae, “spectres of women who die nursing a great grievance. The chief point that distinguishes them from other women was their predilections for consuming the vitals of humans: they were particularly fond of infants” (p. 8). The lamiae, then, serve a threefold purpose. First, they provide an explicitly non-nurturing form of womanhood where female monstrosity is reclaimed and mobilised for feminist ends: these “vampiresses” are collectivised and independent. Furthermore, their iteration of magic provides a stark counterpoint (and challenge) to the patriachically organised traditions of British thaumaturgy. Finally, the lamiae, and the island itself, place Southeast Asian folkloric traditions at the centre of the text, and thereby reappropriate articulations of “Malay Magic” from the over-determinations of British anthropologist Walter William Skeat. Skeat’s Malay Magic (1900), followed in 1906 by his Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, are canonical ethnographic studies which have long dominated understandings of Malaysian magical practices and folklore.
The island is both an advantageous trading post and a key resource for magic; the notoriety and power of this reimagined Malay magic act as both an alluring bounty for external aggressors and the key means of keeping such would-be invaders at bay. Nonetheless, the sovereignty of Janda Baik remains tenuous, a situation exacerbated when a foiled heist perpetrated by the sisters threatens to provide the perfect pretense for a colonial takeover. In consternation Mak Gengang tells Muna that, due to her actions: “‘we shall be overrun!’ ‘No’ exclaimed Muna involuntarily. She thought of soldiers spilling onto the white shores of the island, savage men swarming the villages” (p. 34). Here Cho neatly reverses colonial tropes which narrativise idigenous populations as socially and technologically inferior, and thus in need of western enlightenment. Instead, it is British soldiers who are seen to be savage from the perspective of the local population. Such perspectives demonstrate the text’s key leitmotif of the gaze back into colonial forms of domination, the view of those who have been subjected to or threatened by colonial violence and dispossession.
In order to de-escalate such geopolitical hostilities and opportunism, the sisters are dispatched to Prunella’s recently established school for magiciennes—an organisation dedicated to the magical education of women, in direct defiance of convention and status quo. Rather than traversing the long marine distances, the sisters use a shortcut through Fairy, where Sakti is kidnapped. Distraught, Muna arrives in London with the double mission of rescuing her sister and banishing their curse. Here Prunella, and her close confidante Henrietta, enter into the fray, as part of the novel’s tapestry of multiple voices. During scenes in London we partially see the continuation of Prunella’s story, with her now ensconced in her position as Sorcerer to the Crown. In such moments we see the ongoing disgruntlement of begrudging thaumaturges at Prunella’s leadership. In order to placate them, she carries ritualised accoutrements as “thaumaturges are mad for all articles of the kind—pomp and pageantry—and I do not omit anything that might encourage them to be civil” (p. 122). Such humorous exclamations add moments of levity which underscore Prunella’s resilience in the face of ongoing bigotry. With such wit and forbearance, she not only survives, but manages to flourish within a terrain that is almost uniformly hostile.
Throughout, what really shines is Cho’s humour and adept use of language. Words like “revivifying” are frequent, whilst exchanges are often barbed, with declarations such as “I think you are shockingly ungrateful” (p. 19), denoting delightful expressions of chagrin. Early in the novel Mek Genggang tells Sahki directly, “I can think of any number of things your enemy may have stolen from you. Your conscience, your manners, your respect for your elders” (p. 14), These exchanges and remarks make True Queen, just like Sorcerer before it, a mirthful read. Furthermore, such moments prove that serious issues can be depicted and investigated through an effervescent story of historical romance. With True Queen then, Cho places colonialism at the centre of British society, rather than conveniently magicked away elsewhere, as it is typically portrayed. Such restorative postcolonial gestures make explicit the innumerable ways in which the UK has benefited from colonialism, whilst also exploring how the nation’s identity is deeply informed by the traditions and knowledges of other countries.
Finally, the importance of kinships, both of blood and of bond, act as a source of learning and strength. There are multiple examples of sacrifice, but such acts are always mutual. Perhaps most telling, is when Muna, in a tight spot, remembers that Sahki “would have been confident that all she did was right, since it was she who did it. If Muna was to recover her sister, she must have her sister’s own courage” (p. 121). It is the influence of those loved and esteemed that supplies the support needed to achieve the seemingly impossible.
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