OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: This is the first backlist book I’ve read in ages, and it only happened because I was foolish enough to express interest in the review copy of book two, THE SHADOW CABINET, which I received as a surprise. I like being spoiled, so I quickly picked this up so I could be responsible. I am glad that it was a positive read for me, because it’s the first multi-POV book I remember reading in a long time. I have been into a lot of adult fantasy lately, but haven’t read anything with a big, diverse cast like this one.
This is an urban fantasy that contains biblically inspired paranormal forces. The premise is that there are secret undercover witch covens, and this book focuses on the one in the UK, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), that dates back to Anne Boleyn. It starts in a treehouse, with a scene that occurred twenty five years ago, that introduces readers to the cast of characters being inducted into the coven. It instantly gripped me, and invoked 90’s nostalgia due to the references they made.
The rest of the story picks up in the present, with them being adults, with them being middle aged women, who have all chosen different paths in life. Some of them still serve the crown in some capacities, and the rest of them have drifted away to make a different life for themselves. Now, this is a time of peace and quiet following what seemed to be a big war/conflict, some details of which are slowly revealed over the story, and I have a feeling that there will be more to learn in the coming books. Until, one of them discovers a terrifying prophecy that leads them to arrest a teenager, Theo, in hopes of preventing the oracles’ vision from coming true.
A big part of why I enjoyed this book is because it is queer-friendly, and that it tackles a lot of present political issues. Make no mistake, it reads just like a book written to make commentary on racism, sexism, with a particular focus on gender criticality. One of the characters that plays a pivotal role in this is trans, and there are a lot of conversations about what it means for not just them, but also for those who are trying to keep the world safe. Along with this, some of the women have different circumstances that also deal with racism, and colonial legacies, and tie closely into the way a lot of things are seen in our world.
Throughout the book, this pivotal character, as well as the women who make up the points of view that are explored, all go through their individual journeys where they learn to identify the relationships that work for them, but also figure out who they want to keep in their lives. They have some difficult conversations, maybe even at odd times, but manage to make some things work to keep their peace. There are some that give us a glimpse into the history of this alternate world, which can be very similar to a popular young adult series that quite a lot of us grew up reading, but it is certainly scattered with tidbits of history, with references to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practices, along with some very ancient beliefs that try to trace the roots of the witchcraft present in the book.
Quite a few of them also stick together as they help Theo ease into his/her identity, and become this collective set of mama-bears who will protect him/her at all costs, but without rushing them process. The biggest conflict arises from one of them who is gender critical, and they might remind you of a certain big name who is very popular around these discourses. This gives an opportunity for Theo’s identity to be a political issue, and one that can have huge implications if dealt with improperly. The conversations between the allies and the critical character grew in tension from the moment of the identity reveal, and the ending, while far from a full conclusion to the events set in motion, did put a smile on my face.
There were, however, a few factors that lessened my enjoyment of this book. While the author does not spoon-feed the reader much, I could clearly map out all the characters, as well as their temperaments and connection to each other clearly in my head, it wasn’t as easy with the ideas of the magic system presented. But the biggest issue was definitely the writing, which needed a lot of refinement, and I hope to see this improve in the sequel.