Zen Cho continues her SORCERER ROYAL series with The True Queen (2019), the first follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown. Technically, The True Queen could be read as a stand-alone or as an introduction to the series, and that was the spirit in which I read it, though I often found myself wishing I had read this book second rather than first; the series takes place in a definite chronological order, with events in Sorcerer to the Crown affecting character status and actions in The True Queen in such a way that, despite Cho’s careful implementation of exposition, left me feeling a bit at sea. Other readers may not have this issue, of course, so I encourage them to use their best judgement.
Warning: mild spoilers for Sorcerer to the Crown will be inevitable, and I may not always recognize them as such due to unfamiliarity, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
The True Queen begins on the island of Janda Baik, as two amnesiac sisters discover one another after a tempest and take shelter with Mak Genggang, a powerful witch. Muna, who has no magical talent, assists the servants with their daily duties while Sakti becomes Mak Genggang’s apprentice in the magical arts. But after six weeks, during which time their memories could not be recovered, Mak Genggang sends the pair through the Unseen Realm to England, bidding them to be cautious of attracting the Queen of the Djinns’ attention on their way. But Sakti has been cursed, and disappears along the way, leaving Muna to travel and seek assistance from the Sorceress Royal alone. Surely such an august personage should be able to solve this problem with a snap of her fingers.
Upon reaching The Lady Maria Wythe Academy for the Instruction of Females in Practical Thaumaturgy, however, Muna discovers that restoring herself and Sakti to normal will be far more difficult and time-consuming than she realized. Many members of the British citizenry are not pleased with Prunella Wythe’s taking on the title of Sorceress Royal, nor do they approve of her educating young aristocratic women in forms of magic (or anything else beyond embroidery and gentle conversation, it seems), and have taken to protesting the Academy’s existence by any means necessary, including incendiary devices. Muna must pretend to be a foreign witch with the assistance of a tiny djinn in order to avoid arousing suspicion amongst the Sorceress Royal and her students while seeking their assistance, and ends up working closely with Miss Henrietta Stapleton while tracking down an object which is quite precious to the Fairy Queen (as the English call her). But amidst the fancy balls, endless social pitfalls, and encounters with magical creatures, all Muna can think about is her beloved sister and how to reunite them.
If you’ve read a fair number of Regency-era novels or “novels of manners,” either written contemporaneously (Jane Austen) or by more modern authors (Georgette Heyer, Mary Robinette Kowal’s SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY series), The True Queen may not hold many surprises for you in terms of how the plot progresses. Cho follows the formula faithfully: burgeoning romantic attachments are left unspoken until the very last moment, a family in desperate financial straits hopes that an unappealing-but-wealthy older man will marry a daughter who’s resigned herself to a lifetime of unhappiness in exchange for financial solvency, and the aforementioned fancy-dress balls are as significant and emotionally-fraught as a military battle. It’s all very well done here, but was a tad too familiar for my taste.
Happily, Cho’s got Regency-era social interactions, political complications, and dialogue with its layers-upon-layers of subtext and humor down to a science, and the ways in which she deviates from expectations are both welcome and delightful. Filling her version of England with people of color from all corners of the British Empire, along with multiple significant characters on the LGBT+ spectrum, creates a historically-accurate cast of characters which is as refreshing as a cool breeze. Even though the mechanisms by which the plot comes together are easy to suss out long before the novel’s conclusion, watching the primary characters interact with each other and with denizens of the Unseen Realm is generally enjoyable. There is a side-plot, involving a truly awful young lady of means and the Duke of the Unseen Realm, which doesn’t quite mesh with Muna’s story even though the two plots directly rely upon one another, and which I thought needed a little more work somewhere in order not to stick out like a splinter.
I read The True Queen while suffering from the flu, and it was an absolutely perfect comfort read under those circumstances. It’s funny, well-written, mildly thrilling, and the resolution made me happy. I’ll seek out a copy of Sorcerer to the Crown soon in order to read the SORCERER ROYAL series properly, since I’d like to know a good deal more about Prunella Wythe and her husband Zacharias. And I’m pleased to know that Cho has a third novel in the works, though its title and expected publication date have not yet been released. If you enjoy Regency-era romance and manners with a heavy dose of magic, give The True Queen a chance.