What do you mean I have to wait a year for Book 3?? I guess I’ll manage, but I have spoiled myself by waiting a year to read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, resulting in almost no wait between it and The Shadow Cabinet. Juno Dawson has created an excellent new urban fantasy series. However, I am going to be harder on this book than the first one for precisely that reason: she has set me up to expect great things from her!
As always, spoilers for the first book but not for this one.
The Shadow Cabinet picks up a few months after the end of the first book. Following the disastrous events that culminated in the execution of Helena Vance, previous High Priestess of HMRC, Niamh Kelly is poised to be crowned the new High Priestess. Except she isn’t Niamh Kelly—she is actually her evil twin sister, Ciara, who has swapped bodies. Ciara tries to conceal, with varying degrees of success, this veritable soap operatic twist while she uses her newfound consciousness and freedom to seek out Dabney Hale, disgraced warlock with delusions of grandeur. Leonie is on the case! Meanwhile, Theo and Holly push the bounds of their magic, Elle worries about how her magical life might impinge on the stability of her mundane one, and there’s something going on with simple, uncomplicated Luke.
This book took longer to get going, in my opinion, than the first one. Despite plenty happening, it felt like for several chapters nothing was happening. I honestly was much more invested in the smaller personal arcs of Ciara, Elle, Theo, etc., than I was Leonie’s cross-country hot pursuit of Hale and his evil plan for world domination. Yawn. It’s not a terrible plot as far as Bond-level plots go; nevertheless, Dawson’s ability to write interesting, complicated interpersonal dynamics is what The Shadow Cabinet showcases best. There is no better evidence of this than Ciara.
Look, I will level with you: an easy seventy-five percent of my reservations about this book have to do with how salty I am that Ciara replaced Niamh as one of the viewpoint characters. So you can imagine how frustrated I became when Dawson actually made me start liking Ciara or at least empathizing with her? As if she was a real human being with complex motives rather than an evil monster? What is this, 2020? I thought I was done with empathy, but no, apparently I still have a shred of it left over from somewhere. No, I never stopped hoping Niamh would somehow return from the dead to reclaim her body—at the same time, I started hoping that there would be redemption for Ciara. In fact, my prediction was that Ciara would eventually sacrifice herself to save the world (if not also Niamh). I won’t tell you if this prediction came true!
The same complex dynamics play out in the relationship between Theo and Holly. Theo’s transness was a key point of both plot and character development in the first book, which culminated in Theo’s literal transmogrification: her body changed into one we would typically associate with a cis woman. This complicates things a hell of a lot, and I want to take a moment to unpack this as a trans woman reading a book written by a trans woman.
First, I respect the hell out of Dawson for going this route and engaging with these ideas. My thoughts are messy because this is a messy thing complicated by internalized transphobia and internalized ideas of a gender binary. Theo’s reaction to her new body is given to us in Chapter 9:
This body. This amazing new body. It made no sense, but it was incredible.
Over the summer, she and Holly had watched The Little Mermaid, and Theo knew just how Ariel felt when she looked down and saw her legs for the first time. Only in this case it was a vulva.
Any trans person who uses gender-affirming care to help them feel more aligned with their body will recognize something in these words. Transition is literally a journey of rediscovery. When one has access to the care one desires, it is also a journey of wonder. Waking up each morning and feeling a little bit more like yourself because of how you look in the mirror, how your limbs move, how you smell, etc.—it’s not something to be taken for granted. It is a revelation.
Down the page, however, we start to get into the more complicated part of Theo’s experience:
She also felt guilt. The day of her first menstruation could have been momentous, and it was in a small way. At the same time, she mostly felt bad for the countless other mundane trans girls who may never truly get all they wished for.
(“Mundane” in this sense simply means not a witch.) Dawson gives voice to this again in this chapter, first with Theo musing to herself: “There; that stab of guilt again. She was too trans and not trans enough” and then with Holly, a bit later in the chapter, asking, “Do you still consider yourself transgender?” and Theo answering in the affirmative.
Theo’s transformation allows her the ultimate kind of passing privilege, the ultimate way to live “stealth” should she choose. It is very similar to Danny’s in Dreadnought, another great book with a trans character written by a trans woman. Fantasy allows both Dawson and Daniels to pose a hypothetical question about the nature of being transgender: what is it that actually makes one trans? Theo says, “I was born one way, and now … I’m another.” Is that all? A surface reading of this arc might open Dawson to charges of transmedicalism. However, I actually see the opposite here—reaffirming Theo’s understanding of herself as trans reinforces the idea that biology is not destiny and that one’s genitals do not make one a woman. This was a stance Dawson already loudly proclaimed in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven with Theo’s power level pretransmogrification already at witchy levels rather than warlock levels (the magic knows!). Instead, through Theo Dawson offers us one reading of a transition story—it won’t be every trans woman’s story, but it aligns with some women’s visions of themselves. Theo is still trans because she identifies that way—however, she also acknowledges that she has privileges many trans women don’t, and this affects how society relates to her along the axis of gender identity.
All of this is to say that I really like how Dawson explores these ideas. Theo figures much less prominently in this book than the previous one, something that disappointed me. However, what Theo we get in this story is very good. I admire Dawson for tackling big questions around what it means to be transgender, how we decide these things for ourselves, and how society polices these ideas.
As far as the other viewpoint characters go—honestly, there are just too many. Leonie and Elle again from the first book, but then Dawson tosses in Luke and even a few Chinara chapters? I can’t. Let’s do a quick Kara Kharacter Review Lightning Round.
Leonie: love her arc of realizing she needs to stop sidelining Chinara. Love the open relationship stuff and her need to find her brother. Again, I think she suffers from the dilution caused by so many POV—neither the overall plot with Hale nor Leonie’s journey receive the time and nuance they deserve.
Luke: suddenly turned into the fucking Riley (of Buffy) of this series. Do not like. I don’t see him redeeming himself in my eyes any time soon. Indeed, his role in the climax reminded me too much of Xander at the end of Season 6. (More thoughts on that in a few months on Prophecy Girls.)
Chinara: Barely a POV character, clearly a badass, would read a whole book about her but her inclusion here feels extraneous.
Would have appreciated more Theo, more Holly, even more Elle—honestly Elle is the unsung hero of this story, intentionally so, and I love her for it. Not every witch needs to be glamorous or 100. Elle’s got a heart of gold and must be protected at all costs—even Ciara thinks so!
The Shadow Cabinet is a rad sequel. Did I love it in the same way that I loved the first book? No, for the first book was new and shiny. However, there is no second-book syndrome here. This is an action-packed story with wonderful character development, and if parts of the plot are a bit clunky or predictable or the pacing is off … well, I read literally seventeen installments of The Dresden Files, and this is already way better. So there. If you like witchy stuff and all the juicy drama from the early-2000s TV shows Dawson clearly grew up on, this series is for you.