“The True Queen” by Zen Cho

Thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Malay Witches in Regency England? Yup, I hit the request button at the speed of light when I saw this was available for request. This kind of book is right up my alley: Eastern Cultural focus? Check. Supernatural creatures and themes? Check. A diverse, female focused cast of characters? Double check!

This novel follows the story of Muna and Sakti, two sisters living on the island of Janda Baik. They have lost their memories and have been taken in by the island’s most esteemed witch. Sakti, who unlike Muna, has some magical ability, finds herself under a curse. To find out more about the curse they must travel to England to see the Sorceress Royal. Whilst travelling, Sakti mysteriously disappears and Muna must find out what has happened to her sister before it is too late. To do so she enlists the help of Prunella, the Sorceress Royal and Henrietta, Prunella’s friend and colleague.

I absolutely loved the initial setting of Janda Baik and kinda wished the whole book could have taken place there. The lush descriptions of the forest and the evocative descriptions of the traditional and colonial buildings really brought the island to life, as well as some of the supernatural creatures present on the island.

The novel also has a diverse cast with characters from different ethnic groups and LGBTQ representation. The characters were well-written, although there were some I’d liked to have seen more of. I believe the author has an earlier book set in the same world so perhaps they make an appearance there.

I really liked how Muna refused to be cowed by the racist and ignorant attitudes she came up against and I felt she was a great example of a feminist heroine in YA. She wasn’t the usual bombastic, sword wielding badass, rather she was quietly confident and cunning in her own way which was quite refreshing. The romance is also very subtle and not central to the plot so that was quite different too, in a good way.

The English Regency setting was portrayed well and Jane Austen fans will see a nod to her style, particularly in the witty exchanges between characters. I’m not a huge Austen fan myself, so I didn’t always love pages and pages of dialogue but if that’s your thing you’ll certainly appreciate it. Because of this however, there were large sections of the book where nothing really happened. For example, I found my eyes glazing over the part with the dragons in particular. I lost track of what was happening and found myself not really caring that I was rather lost and confused.

Overall, a well written book with an interesting premise and compelling heroine. However, I found it too dialogue heavy and light on plot and I wish more of the novel had been set on Janda Baik. I found it really fun to read at first but things just dropped off for me as the story progressed.

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