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I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition of ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Coven’ by Juno Dawson, though had its ebook for reference as well. The audiobook is narrated by Irish actor, Nicola Coughlan.
I have been excited for months about this novel with its premise of a royal sanctioned coven. However, it proved different to what I was expecting, which is a lesson in itself. My response was mixed. In some respects the writing felt very YA or Chicklit. I enjoyed this playfulness at times but other times it just didn’t work for me.
‘Her Majesty’s Royal Coven’ is the first in a series centred around a secret government agency tasked to use magic to protect Britain from various supernatural threats. The original coven was created by Queen Anne Boleyn and has continued down through the centuries to the present day.
When they were young, five friends took the Oath and entered the HMRC. Twenty five years pass in the turning of a page. The eldest, Helena, has risen to be the organisation’s High Priestess. Leonie left the coven to found Disporia, an inclusive and intersectional coven. Elle left the magical world completely and is a housewife, though her daughter, Holly, is showing signs of magical powers so Mum might have to come out of the broom closet. Niamh is semi-retired and using her magical gifts as a country veterinarian. The fifth of the young witches, Ciara, Niamh’s twin, has been in a hospital for some years in a coma like state. Intriguing!
All is well until a Minority Report style prophecy about a ‘sullied child’ who will summon the Leviathan and the end of witchkind and men resurfaces. A young warlock (the term Juno uses for male witches) has been captured after displaying remarkable powers. Helena begs Niamh to return to the HMRC to help ascertain whether this young warlock is dangerous …. Niamh does and makes a connection with Theo, the ‘boychild’. So, Theo is entrusted to her care.
However, when Theo confides to Holly that she is not a boy but trans and Holly shares this with her Mum who shares it with… (you get the idea), it is panic time - well at least for Helena. She is seriously triggered, ‘end of the world as we know it’ style. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers but yeah. Still, the majority of characters are supportive of Theo, who certainly seems innocent enough even if her powers are in need of training.
In parts this novel was quite good though I did have some issues. I am not a fan of magic and witchcraft in fiction that involves teleportation and these kind of physical feats and pyrotechnics. It’s okay in fluffy witchy fantasies but I had expected this to be more grounded in historical witchcraft and magic.
Also, while I appreciated that Dawson wanted to address issues associated with identity, it felt as though this quickly dominated the plot. It just felt far too political for my taste. Also, Helena morphs into such a cartoon baddie: sent bonkers by the idea of a young transwoman being admitted to ‘her’ coven. It seemed to be a wasted opportunity to demonstrate that people can get over their limited world-views.
Also, Juno Dawson has created a magical world that is very polarised by gender. In the real world covens are made up of both women and men, so the idea of a witch getting the vapours over seeing male bits was just bizarre. How much Dawson was informed by the occult and witchcraft community was unclear to me. There have been ‘women only’ covens arising from the feminist movement and these may be closer to her vision for HMRC.
I did enjoy the use of pop culture throughout the novel and fun dialogue between the characters.
With respect to the audiobook, full marks to Nicola Coughlan. I have adored her work in Derry Girls and Bridgerton. (Team Penelope!) She was a splendid narrator, handling a variety of accents with ease and her timing was excellent. Please may she narrate the series!
Overall, while I found ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Coven’ heavy-handed on gender identity politics (and don’t get me started on the ending!) it will be interesting to see how the plot unfolds and characters develop in the next book.
In terms of rating, the novel on its own was an ‘it’s okay’ 3 stars for me; yet Nicola Coughlan’s narration was so good that my rating is higher for the audiobook and so 4 stars.
this novel is aiming for a contemporary-issues/not-your-grandma's-magic slot, blending the flavour of marvel comics with witchcraft to produce a story with lots of action in a good-against-evil, the-apocalypse-is-coming style. while it seems like it ought to be a good thing to have contemporary gender and race issues addressed, on balance this book just tastes mean, petty and unoriginal. I prefer reading to television to get away from exactly this kind of thing, so I started skimming about a halfway through. then I put it in the bin, because really, would I want to give this away to be read by someone else?
Ok, I loved, loved this book except for the final, final twist. If this stays as is I’d be very unhappy. It would affect my appetite for the series. I mean, it’s masterful, but I have to think I’m in the majority here. I’d get the 2nd book because I’m an optimist but I’ll need hope in that volume. Anyone reading this review, just buy the book already. If you like well written, well edited Urban Fantasy, you’ve been waiting for this. Fans of Ben Aaronovitch will be very happy.
Absolutely loved this book fro.start to finish- and wow what a finish! I will be waiting with bated breathe for next one. Story has everything, great world building, well developed characters and a good amount of magical action. Deserving of all the hype. Glad I didn't wait to read!
Its hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It is incredibly well thought out, and the way Junk Dawson paints a picture with words makes it easy to visualise the details. I truly hope there is a second book, because I really want to find out what happens to the characters.
I do not read fantasy type books-excepting of course George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire set-and I can't believe I bought a book about witches, but what an amazing work. Well written and plotted, suspenseful, funny at times, and a real page turner. What a treat-I loved it!