Zen Cho: Tackling questions of race, gender and social justice in fantasy fiction

The Malaysian author is causing a stir with her debut novel

David Barnett
Friday 11 September 2015 15:00
Zen Cho, London-based Malaysian author of speculative fiction and romance.
Zen Cho, London-based Malaysian author of speculative fiction and romance.

Perhaps somewhat unwittingly, Zen Cho has become something of a poster-girl for the growing chorus of voices clamouring for more diversity in science fiction and fantasy literature.

It seems a given that a genre that deals with the different, the new, and the unfamiliar as a matter of course should quite naturally embrace diversity and progressiveness in both its practitioners and its characters.

But the recent debacle over the genre’s Hugo Awards – to cut a very long story very short, the awards nominations were flooded by a concerted campaign from a couple of fandom factions who think SF should really be the preserve of straight white males, and a spaceship should be a spaceship and not a metaphor for anything else – shows that there are still clearly-delineated battle lines over this.

Many people have weighed in to the debate on all sides, not least the Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, who has waged a long blog campaign against the “gaming” of the Hugos. Zen Cho’s response has been more measured, and delivered in really the best way an author can – she’s written a novel that simultaneously manages to tackle questions of race, gender, and social justice while being a thumping good read.

Zen Cho's debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, is the first in a historical fantasy trilogy

Sorcerer to the Crown is a Regency fantasy that posits an alternative-history England where magic is practised openly, but where political shenanigans within the source of the magic, the Fairy Court, are limiting England’s power … and just when it needs it most as the Government ramps up its war with the French.

By now you’ll be thinking Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and it is true that thematically Sorcerer to the Crown does share some DNA with Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel which, by happy marketing accident, was adapted and broadcast by the BBC just weeks before the release of Zen’s debut.

It’s a very different novel, though, largely thanks to its two main characters: Zacharias Wythe, England’s first Sorcerer Royal of African descent, and Prunella Gentleman, a fiery and ambitious mixed-race orphan with a gift for magic. The establishment is already in conniptions at having a black Sorcerer Royal, and a woman of part-Indian parentage with designs on practising magic is enough to tip them over the edge.

It’s almost an analogy of the diversity argument raging in the SF/fantasy genre, but 29-year-old Zen – who seems perpetually cheerful about everything – is adamant that she never set out to write a “message” novel.

Zen Cho, London-based Malaysian author of speculative fiction and romance

“Zacharias isn’t just a metaphor,” she says. “He’s a character. The same for Prunella. But obviously I wanted to write about the centrality of the colonial territories to the British at that time. Colonialism was fundamental to the way Britain worked. London was built on slavery and imperialism, and I wanted to explore how that worked through a fantastical Regency romance.”

Born and growing up in Malaysia – a British colony, of course, until the mid-20th century – Zen is well placed to observe British colonialism from the inside, and with distance from London.

She grew up reading English novels voraciously, and noticed early on that fiction was not often representative. She says, “I realised after a while that when characters were described as ‘dark’ it didn’t mean dark-skinned, as I first thought, but that they were dark-haired.”

Sorcerer to the Crown could be seen as an attempt to balance this out, but first and foremost it is a fun and thrilling read. “It’s post-colonial fluff for book nerds,” Zen says, somewhat disarmingly and not entirely accurately – written with a light touch it might be, and eminently readable, but it’s a much more important entry to the historical fantasy genre than can be described as “fluff”.

For starters, the language and dialogue is spot-on, evidence that Zen has immersed herself in the literature of the time.

“I do enjoy pastiche,” she says. “I started writing fan-fiction. I’d do Discworld [Terry Pratchett] and Good Omens [Pratchett and Neil Gaiman] fanfic. Then I would do mash-ups of books and styles – I wrote Good Omens stories in the style of Rudyard Kipling.” She pauses, then says, “Kipling used to do pastiches of Robert Browning poems, you know.”

Author Zen Cho

That, and her wide reading in period literature – Jane Austen, of course, but also Susan Ferrier, whose 1818 novel Marriage (first published anonymously) earned her the label “the Scottish Austen”, and who is one of Zen’s favourites – allowed her to slip comfortably into the Regency style used throughout Sorcerer to the Crown.

And, of course, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. “I think I have every edition of that book!” she enthuses. “Obviously there are surface similarities between Sorcerer and Jonathan Strange, but that’s all. When people started mentioning them in the same sentence, it was very intimidating, for my novel to be compared to a book of that stature. I think I always thought of Sorcerer more as Georgette Heyer with a bit of added magic.”

Zen came to the UK when she was 17, to study for her A-levels, and then read law at Cambridge, where she met her now-husband, Peter. She currently works three days a week as a corporate lawyer, living in London, and spending the rest of her time writing.

She’s been writing fiction since she was six (so her mother tells her) and she had a collection of Malaysian fantasy stories published, and edited an anthology of near-future cyberpunk tales by Malaysian writers. Her collection, Spirits Abroad, was earlier this year named joint-winner of the Crawford Award for fantasy fiction – previous winners have included Joe Hill and Jasper Fforde.

Zen started writing Sorcerer to the Crown after she got married in 2012, and the following year began querying agents with her first draft. It sold quickly at auction, first to Ace in the US and then to Macmillan for the UK edition.

Despite the themes of her novel, though, she never intended to become that poster-girl for diversity, though she may well be exactly what the genre needs right now. Zen says: “I wanted to write a fun book, the sort of book I wanted to read. Sometimes, it’s thought that when people of colour are characters in novels they have to be tragic and worthy. There’s obviously a place in the world for these sorts of books, and they have an important role.” Zen Cho breaks out into a huge grin. “But then I think, that shouldn’t be the whole point. This is science fiction and fantasy. Bring on the dragons and spaceships too!”

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