Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno DawsonHer Majesty's Royal Coven (Her Majesty's Royal Coven, #1) by Juno Dawson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal
Series: HRMC #1
Pages: 448
Published by Penguin Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook

A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this the first installment of this epic fantasy trilogy about a group of childhood friends who are also witches.

If you look hard enough at old photographs, we're there in the background: healers in the trenches; Suffragettes; Bletchley Park oracles; land girls and resistance fighters. Why is it we help in times of crisis? We have a gift. We are stronger than Mundanes, plain and simple.At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.
Juno Dawson explores gender and the corrupting nature of power in a delightful and provocative story of magic and matriarchy, friendship and feminism. Dealing with all the aspects of contemporary womanhood, as well as being phenomenally powerful witches, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle may have grown apart but they will always be bound by the sisterhood of the coven.

My Review:

Most prophecies are self-fulfilling. Oedipus’ father made that whole story happen by trying his damndest to keep that whole story from happening. And don’t get me started on Harry Potter and Voldemort and bringing that whole prophecy into being by trying to cut it off at the knees when Harry was a toddler.

Or maybe do get me started on that. Because I’ll be getting back to it later.

Because while the blurb for this book compares it to A Discovery of Witches and The Craft, Harry Potter is really a LOT closer to the mark. In the Potterverse, magic is real and it works and there’s an entire hidden society devoted to training new magic users and keeping the secret that there is power and influence to be had by literally waving a magic wand.

The girls in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are inheritors of a long and grand tradition of using magic on behalf of the Crown of England in order to defend the realm from threats both foreign and domestic that use magic to make and be those threats.

They are, quite literally, the few and the proud, and the night before they make their official witch’s oaths and become part of HMRC, they are sure they will be friends forever.

That’s one prophecy that seldom works out, and so it proves when the story picks up 25 years later. Now they are all adults, and all survivors of a great magical war that scarred their bodies and their futures, freezing them into the places and positions they now hold – sometimes by their fingernails.

Helena, the leader of the girls they were and the leader of the hidebound covert government department that HMRC has been for generations, is facing the impending doom of the organization she heads. Or so she believes.

The witches who watch the future, the seeresses who prophesy on behalf of HMRC and of Britain, are all seeing the same dark future. That the end of their world is going to be brought about by a young warlock of immense power that the prophecies call “The Sullied Child”. He will be their downfall, and he has been found.

The prophecies are right. And they’re wrong. But mostly, they are completely, totally and utterly self-fulfilling to the nth degree and the entirely bitter end.

Escape Rating B-: There are so many things going on in this story, and so many of them are good. But there’s something rotten at its heart that I can’t get past, although I suspect that other readers will have less of a problem with it.

This is a story about feminism and female friendship. It’s also a story about how the ties that bind in childhood can strangle in adulthood.

The four women who are at the center of this story have all gone their different ways. Helena has taken the path of power and leadership that her considerable privilege has led her to believe is her right as well as her duty.

But the noblesse oblige that underlies that privilege has no room for any who would choose a different path – as all of her former friends have done. Helena’s HMRC has no place for intersectionality, so anyone not white, not British, not wealthy and not privileged, in other words anyone not like Helena herself, is a threat to her power.

Leonie is black, Elle has retreated into a mundane life, and Niamh has no desire to be under anyone’s thumb – and certainly not under Helena’s. They have all been, in their various ways, outcast from the HMRC.

When Niamh takes that so-called “Sullied Child” under her wing, she learns that the young warlock who is such a threat to the HMRC is actually a transgirl who wants nothing more than to be the witch she was meant to be and not the warlock that Helena continues to see as the ultimate threat.

Niamh, Elle and Leonie want to do what is right rather than what is easy. Helena wants to preserve the HMRC’s traditions and believes that those ends justify any means she might employ – no matter how heinous. Helena is certain that she is working for the “Greater Good” without ever taking a hard look at who it might be good for.

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

But what struck me as I read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was just how much it mirrored Harry Potter considered in context of that author’s heinous beliefs about transwomen. She used Hermione Granger as an avatar for herself in the series, to the point where she had Hermione marry Ron at the end because the author was working out issues in a romantic relationship of her own rather than taking that part of the story in the direction it had been heading from the beginning. (My 2 cents and I’ll get down off this soapbox now).

To me, Helena read like Hermione as her own author; smart, a bit stuck-up, worshipful of authority while determined to join it, and single-minded in pursuit of a goal. Also someone who seems to be doing her level best to destroy her own legacy because she can’t deal with the concept that other perspectives are as valid as her own and especially that transwomen are women. Full stop. For this reader, the obviousness of the woman behind the curtain, Helena as Hermione as her author, is the interpretation that remained fixed in my head through my entire reading and drenches my feelings about the book. I think it would have better served the story if the callback to Harry Potter’s author hadn’t been quite so obvious or so pointed.

Your reading mileage, even if by broomstick, may definitely vary.

The Magician King

There are two kings and two queens in Narnia…no wait, I meant Fillory.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is a return to the universe that Grossman constructed in his breakout hit, The Magicians, just a different section of it.

In The Magicians, Grossman introduced us to Brakebills, a Hogwarts for college students, but in upstate New York instead of the wilds of Scotland.

If The Magicians was Harry Potter for grown-ups, then The Magician King is definitely Narnia.

The end of Magicians leaves Quentin Coldwater one the kings of Fillory, the imaginary world he loved as a child that turned out not to be imaginary after all. A very real version of Narnia, except the original access was through a clock instead of a wardrobe, and there were only five books instead of seven. Minor details.

Magician King opens with Quentin and two other Brakebills graduates, plus Julia, as the four kings and queens of Fillory. Julia’s lack of credentials from Brakebills is a a critical part of the story.

Quentin is bored. Being a king of a magical kingdom is unfulfilling. There is nothing that needs doing. There are no quests. Fillory takes care of itself. So when it is discovered that the Outer Islands have not paid their taxes in several years, Quentin decides that handling the problem is something he needs to do to show himself to some of his people.

Julia comes along, as does a Talking Sloth, a champion, and an apprentice mapmaker. And in the Outer Islands, on the island of After (thus named because the island was found After the border of the kingdom of Fillory) Quentin finds a golden key that opens the door to his quest. Which leads him through Julia’s discovery of her magic outside of Brakebills, and saves Fillory.

But Quentin learns that heroes always pay a high price to save the day. Especially when they save all the days yet to come. And the hero sometimes doesn’t even get the girl to comfort him.

Reading The Magicians, it is impossible to miss the parallels to Harry Potter. With Magician King, it’s just as easy to see Narnia everywhere you look. But what makes Magician King different is that so much of the story is told from the “Magician Queen’s” perspective–it is Julia’s non-Brakebills hedge witch education that is needed to solve the puzzle. And it is Julia’s story and Julia’s broken psyche that the reader identifies with and feels for through much of the book, right up until the very end.

The story of The Magicians is that of the privileged group who finds out that magic is real and that they can wield it. They grab on with both hands and hang on for the ride. In Magician King, we discover that Julia found out that magic was real, but that it was denied her–she failed the test–and it broke her. We all hope we would be Quentin and his friends, and fear we would be Julia.

Escape Rating A: The Magician King is a terrific fantasy. It does stand on the shoulders of Narnia.  When Eliot, the High King of Fillory, refers to some of the quests he conducted while Quentin and Julia were off on their own journey, the echoes of Voyage of the Dawn Treader were extremely close.  But Julia’s journey is much harder and longer than any that Aslan inflicted on any of the Pevenseys, or even Edmund.  It’s worth your time to the journey with them.

And once a King in Fillory, always a King in Fillory. I hope.

Life after Harry

When I say “Harry”, I mean Harry Potter, of course.  Who else could I possibly mean?

The movie poster for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

Harry Potter fans have been in a curious kind of limbo since July 21, 2007, when the last book was released. We’ve all known how the story ends. But as long as the movies were still being released, the “illustrated” edition was, in effect, still putting out supplements. There were still some unknowns, just not very many. Now that saga, too, is complete.

There are generations yet unborn who will discover Harry for the first time, but there will never be another who will grow up exactly as he does, while he does. Even for those of us who read the series as adults, the experience of waiting for the next book, and speculating on what might happen will never be the same. All has been revealed.

The magic of Harry Potter was not in Diagon Alley, or even at Hogwarts Castle. It was in the overwhelming desire it created in both children and adults to pick up a book and READ! What comes next? Or who?

The inevitable lists have come out, suggesting books that people can turn to as alternatives. For example, Kirkus Reviews published a list of books called “For those suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal“. It’s a great idea, but I’d love to have seen more suggestions for adults suffering from Potter Withdrawal Syndrome (PWS, anyone?) and not just books for kids. And, of course, some of my favs are missing. Tamora Pierce belongs on any list for the magically inclined, either starting with Song of the Lioness or the Circle of Magic. And so does Diane Duane’s series starting with So you want to be a wizard.

Of course, Hollywood is looking for the next big blockbuster. Deathly Hallows 2 had the biggest opening weekend of any movie in history. It’s too bad they didn’t split it into three parts. Just think of all the money they could have made!

Or, if George R.R. Martin had held out for a series of movies instead of an HBO series for The Song of Ice and Fire. On second thought, that’s one saga that is better as a mini-series. Those books are huge. Condensing them to a mini-series was probably difficult enough.

However, io9‘s Facebook users have leapt into the breach and suggested a list of 10 fantasy book series that could replace Harry Potter at the movies. People were supposed to suggest series for their movie-worthiness; whether the books in question were “good” books or not is, as always, a matter of personal opinion. What was interesting about the list was that the books were not necessarily new, not necessarily popular, and not necessarily good. Having read 7 out of the 10 books listed, I’m can definitely testify to any of the above.

The number 1 listed series was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. From 1936! These are classics. I mean, really classic. As in, Leiber not only coined the term “sword and sorcery” but Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are arguably among the foundation stories in the genre. If you’ve never had the pleasure the first book is Swords and Deviltry. Or, for a real treat, try the graphic novel version.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series was also listed. This is not a big surprise. The series is not just long, but it has a huge number of fans. Artemis Fowl was also mentioned, as he is frequently listed as a successor to Mr. Potter. I haven’t read him, but I have the first three books in the vast TBR pile.

The surprise of the list was Dragonlance. I had to groan. And I did read them, so I am entitled to my groan. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles on a Trans-Atlantic flight, when those were the only three books I had. I can’t sleep on airplanes. If I could have slept, believe me, I would have. Essentially, someone took a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and wrote it up into three books. The trilogy sold well enough that they managed to sell a second trilogy. That first book, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was almost painful. But as I read it, I could see the writers learning their craft as the book progressed. By the end, it wasn’t too bad. But filming it?

I’d rather see anything else on the list. But then again, the first time I saw the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens, I thought it was either a joke or a video game. Whatever it is, it’s not a substitute for Harry Potter. Or John Wayne either, come to think of it.


What makes the better man?

What does it mean to be “the better man”? And which matters more, being “better” in the moral and ethical sense, or being “superior” in the evolutionary sense?

After a recent viewing of the movie X-Men: First Class, those were the questions that kept circling my mind, like the never-ending debate between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, the future Professor X and Magneto.

We first really see Charles Xavier in the midst of World War II at age 12 in the kitchen of his family’s estate. He interrupts his mother in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Except it’s not really his mother. It’s a little girl who is capable of mimicking the outward appearance of anyone, anyone at all. She has the mutation of being a human chameleon. Her true outward appearance consists of slightly scaly blue skin, red hair and yellow eyes. She is a mutant. But Xavier is not all that astonished. He is a mutant too, but his mutation is on the inside. He can read her mind. And everyone else’s.

Erik Lehnsherr spends his war in a Concentration Camp with a number tattooed on his arm. His introduction shows him, also at a young age, being separated from his mother during the sorting process at the Camp entrance by the Nazis. In his grief and rage at the separation, young Erik uses his burgeoning power to start pulling the metal gates that separate him from his mother off their hinges until a guard knocks him out with a rifle butt. A doctor decides to bring his power to full fruition, using the most obscene lever at his command, Erik’s love for his mother. The doctor kills her in front of the boy, and the power explodes, sending all the metal objects that Erik can see into a swirling Armaggedon.

When we see them each again, it is 1962. They have all grown up. Xavier is graduating from Oxford as a Professor of Genetic Mutation. Erik is traveling to Switzerland and South America, taking his own personal revenge on the Nazis. The little blue girl Xavier found in his kitchen, well, she is still with him in Oxford, pretending to be his sister, and using her chameleon ability to pretend to be normal. And that sums up the three protagonists, one the son of privilege, one the survivor of man’s absolute inhumanity to man, and one a mutant who is ashamed of herself.

They collide in the middle of the ocean. Erik is in pursuit of the doctor who killed his mother. Xavier is in pursuit of the man who wants to start World War III. They happen to be the same mutant, now going by the name of Sebastian Shaw, backed by a small army of mutants. Shaw believes that the spontaneous rise of mutations is the result of atomic testing, and that the release of nuclear war will create more mutants, whom he will rule.

This is the central conflict between Erik and Xavier. Xavier believes that the “better man”, the morally superior man, would capture Shaw and let some higher authority judge him for his crimes. Erik just wants to kill him for the crime of murdering his mother and torturing him, whatever else the villain has done. The problem is that Shaw is a psychopath as well as a powerful mutant who can absorb any energy that is thrown at him. But primarily, he is a psychopath, and probably would have been even if he hadn’t been a mutant. Killing him is the only way to stop him from starting World War III (in the movie, Shaw was the motivating force behind the Cuban Missile Crisis). To borrow from a different science fiction universe, the needs of the many, in this case the entire human race, outweigh the needs of the few. Erik did the right thing, even if his motives were selfish.

Mutants are superior to homo sapiens in an evolutionary sense. Xavier believes that if his people do the moral thing, the better thing, that the homo sapiens will treat his people fairly and not act irrationally. In other words, not turn on them out of fear. Erik knows what it is like to be irrationally hated, he has already been there. He is certain that once their powers are revealed, humans will fear them, and will act on that fear. The story proves him correct. What is interesting is that Xavier has known this all along, he has just refused to admit it, even to himself. That is why he has hidden his talent, and why he has made his mutant friend Mystique use her chameleon talent to hide hers, to keep himself from being exposed.

In Harry Potter’s world, the wizards and witches hide from the Muggles. In Deborah Harkness’ book, A Discovery of Witches, the witches conceal their talents from the world at large as well, and for the same reason. The magical folk remember the witch burnings all too well, and do not want them to happen again. Concealment is safer.

Katherine Kurtz’ series about the magical Deryni said it best, and the words still send a chill up my spine. “The humans kill what they do not understand.”