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Review of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven

by Juno Dawson

Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.

Bought last year but a victim of every bibliophile’s nemesis, the ever-growing to-read shelf (or pile, or teetering tower), Her Majesty’s Royal Coven sounded like something I would really enjoy—and I did! It’s going to be a summer of witches on this site, for I have many witchy books to read and review, starting with this first adult novel from Juno Dawson.

Helena, Niamh, Leonie, and Elle grew up together in Yorkshire, bonded by age and the increasingly rare inherited gift of magic. As often happens, their lives have diverged in adulthood: Helena is posh and now the head of the eponymous royally sanctioned coven; Niamh is a veterinarian; Leonie has started an indie coven for racialized witches; Elle is a housewife who has largely given up on being a practising witch. The witches of England are still recovering from a brief but injurious civil war, in which a warlock wanted to expose witchcraft and subjugate mundane humans. Now, Helena believes an even worse fate is nigh: a child with inexplicable levels of power has appeared and might be the harbinger of a demonic apocalypse.

Though nearly 500 pages and involving four main viewpoint characters, this book feels very spry. I sense the work of a dedicated editor here helping Dawson hone her story into its best-told form. In particular, I like that while we spend time with each of these four witches, the book truly emphasizes Niamh and Helena. They are the two poles of the story, if you will, between which everyone else oscillates. In many ways they are opposite—Niamh the simple country witch; Helena the witch of power and privilege—but they have in common an obstinacy and deep desire to preserve the peace. Alas, Dawson is very good at showing us how two reasonable people can disagree, and how that disagreement can ultimately lead to division and disaster.

Indeed, the lifeblood of this story is the conflict among these four women who grew up together, their shared history of loss—the witch now missing from among their number—their multifaceted identities as women, mothers, professionals, etc. I love how Dawson manages to establish each as a credible character in her own right. They explicitly name and discuss the role of patriarchy in their lives—fans of Holly Bourne’s adult novels are going to feel right at home here, albeit with an extra layer of magic on top. I know Dawson is also a big fan of Sex and the City, and while I am less familiar with that show I can also see some connections with that vibe among the main characters.

I don’t really know how to talk about the novel beyond this without diving into spoiler territory because I have to talk about Theo and the main conflict. In general, I don’t consider revealing a character’s gender identity or sexuality to be a spoiler, but the case can be made here that it is, and so I flagged my review as such.

I love that there’s no mention of a trans character in the cover copy for the book. I knew, of course, that Dawson is a trans woman, and I went into this book expecting to see a trans character, or a few trans characters, simply as a matter of good diversity. But I try to make it a habit not to expect that trans authors will write books whose plots revolve around transgender themes, because that is of course not all that we are. So I appreciate how it kind of sneaks up on you.

Not to brag, but I guessed that Theo is trans pretty quickly—Dawson explains early in the book that witches are just naturally stronger than warlocks when it comes to magic. The explanation proffered at the time is cissexist, speculation about X-linked genetic traits, and actually kind of stuck out coming from a trans author—but I was patient. Sure enough, the moment this boy-child shows up on the scene and all these people are all, “But why is he so much powerful than a girl his age, than all of us women even?” it was evident, at least from my perspective, what twist Dawson was working up to. I say all this because I want to emphasize that I really like how Dawson gets there in the end: the way that Theo confides first in Holly, short-circuiting a straight teenage romance and turning it into sisterhood; the delicacy and love that Niamh shows in handling the situation; the indelicacy and vulnerability of people like Leonie, who admits to grappling with questions of inclusion when she was starting up Diaspora, her coven.

After I finished the book, I peeped some reviews and saw a few people levelling the well-meaning criticism that Helena’s abrupt heel turn, somewhat cartoonish in magnitude, undermines her characterization as a transphobe. But I think that’s entirely Dawson’s intention here. Helena is the misguided cis white woman who thinks that feminism belongs to her, and her increasing caricaturization of herself is an intentional comment on how such white women tell on themselves. At each turn, as Helena encounters resistance to her transphobia from her friends, she doubles down on her rhetoric. She can’t possibly be wrong—everyone else is wrong. Helena feels like a clownish character by the end of the book because transphobic women like her are clownish; they are villains existing atop a house of rhetorical cards that threatens to topple over at the slightest wind of wisdom. The fact that each stage of Helena’s regression is logical and measured only adds to the effect. It is important for us to remember that Dawson wrote this novel in a moment where anti-trans sentiment in the UK, particularly among a certain brand of stalwart second-wave feminists (not to mention a certain author of children’s fiction about witches and wizards), was so legitimized in mainstream media and press that it was (and remains) easy to conceive of someone like Helena not only having power but wielding it in the way that she does. I found Helena’s characterization entirely believable, and any caricature therein to be a deliberate and effective strategy at lampooning transphobia.

Now, did I love everything about this part of the plot, the portrayal of Theo’s transition, or the transphobia that she and her allies encounter? Of course not. In particular, I wasn’t a fan of how Helena’s defeat and fall from grace radicalizes Snow into a TERF. Though it makes a small amount of sense, plot-wise, it feels a little bit lazy and melodramatic. I would have liked to see Snow break from her mum, or perhaps have Snow accept and affirm Theo’s identity but still oppose Theo, Niamh, and the others. (This is what I think many of the critics were getting at when they criticized Helena’s portrayal as a transphobic villain—although all transphobes are villainous, not all villains need be transphobes, and it would be nice to see some people who are trans-inclusive but still antagonistic for other reasons. Radley, I suppose, comes close to this.)

In the end, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven feels like a very timely work. I am so happy the sequel just came out so I can hopefully read that this summer as well! I enjoyed the world that Dawson created here, the way that she explores what magic is, its connection to the natural world and ourselves, and the institutions that have sprung up around it. I loved the characters, especially the tight-knit bonds between women—I hope in the next book we get to see more from Theo and Holly’s perspectives, even though I know this isn’t a young-adult series. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes queer works, magic and witchcraft, and just really fun adventures.

Also, the hot pink cover? I love it so much.


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