Book Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

Today’s review is about HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN by Juno Dawson. The premise of this book sounded interesting and I’d heard that there’s a good amount of LGBTQ representation. Unfortunately, the presentation fell flat for me for many reasons.

Author: Juno Dawson
Series: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven #1
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publish Date: May 31, 2022
Print Length: 448

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Official Synopsis

A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this epic fantasy 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 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

I was going to try to keep this review short, but my brain had other plans. Suffice it to say, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I might. Britishisms aside, which were lost on me, the writing style was fine. But I was completely distracted by the clunky insertion of what felt like every single social issue as well as caricatures and stereotypes.

Every time I found a reading groove with the plot, the commentary threw me right back out of it. I don’t mind political commentary in my reading choices. (I loved PERILOUS TIMES by Thomas D. Lee, for crying out loud.) But the inclusion of political commentary in HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN felt forced. These issues were often mentioned, but not explored at all. It was so obvious that it almost read like a Young Adult book, except the main characters are in their 30s and still processing events from the war.

Social commentary thrust into the story included: the notion of triggering, reparations, suppression or appropriation of cultural customs by the White majority, purity culture/supremacy (mundanes vs. magical folks), global turmoil post downfall of a liberal leader, TERFs, beauty pressure from women vs. men, pregnancy prevention/abortion, trauma of birth, gaslighting, lifetime prison sentence vs. death penalty, and the assigned importance of borders. And these were all in the last 2/3 of the book. I didn’t keep track while reading the first third.

I also felt like there were some caricatures or stereotypes present. Leonie felt cast as the angry Black woman. She left HMRC to form essentially a BIPOC coven since she felt the former did not make a conscious effort in the field of diversity and equity inclusion (DEI). She wanted to create an inclusive and representative space for BIPOC witches. But I felt that’s where the story left it. It was yet another aspect half included in the story as a way to show how stifling a majority-White institution or culture can be. What I’m trying to say, again, is that the author included another social commentary item that’s not fully developed. This book needed to focus on a few issues rather than cast a wide net to catch them all.

Additionally, I felt like Val, a minor character who is a transwoman, embodied the stereotype of a bubbly, flamboyant woman. Think Elle from Legally Blonde. Yes, these personalities do exist. But the fact that this personality was assigned to a transwoman felt, well, stereotypical. Moreover, (SPOILER) I had a huge issue with the transformation scene of another trans character. The transformation itself isn’t problematic since transpeople obviously (and should) have the right to gender-confirming procedures and products. Rather, I felt the language used (“healed”) to describe the transformation was problematic. It implies that to be transgender is wrong and that to pass is the ultimate goal of a transperson. Language is incredibly important when describing emotionally-fraught topics.

Which brings me to an aside about language. It surprised me to see the word “schizo” used to describe the mental state of someone who did not have schizophrenia. My understanding is this use of “schizo” is not acceptable anymore and is ableist. Perhaps this teen character used it because her mother has some prejudices that she picked up on. But at the same time, this character also has peers who do not communicate like that. And her generation is even more accepting and aware than previous generations.

Lastly, I was told HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN is kind of a clapback at the Harry Potter author’s trans beliefs. And I can totally see that. There are similarities between some of HMRC’s characters and those in Harry Potter. There’s even a similar quote (think Seamus Finnegan’s “me mam’s a Witch” line) and a love for lemon sherbert candies. However, I felt this book should have moved away from character similarities and focused on its own story to tell, and been stronger for it. Because of the similarities, but also the social commentary, I couldn’t fully grasp whether HMRC was a satire or parody or perhaps something in between.

Unfortunately, I don’t see myself continuing this series in the near future. The premise was promising and the diversity is great. But I found all the elements described above distracting and, at times, problematic. I hope I didn’t inadvertently offend anyone. I tried to be sensitive with the elements I didn’t think were done well. If I accidentally offended anyone, or if anything I wrote is problematic, please DM me and let me know.

Rating: 3
Content warnings: misgendering, transphobia/transmisia, death, blood, sexual content
Reading format: Hardback

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

    1. I thought it was just me who felt like this about the book. But 25% of the way through I caved and read some goodreads reviews and saw I wasn’t the only one.

  1. I definitely agree about the characters feeling very YA . They mostly seemed to lack depth. I was also disappointed by the lack of attention paid to Leonie’s alternative coven. It would have been really nice to have more information about that. I will read the sequel at some point this week as I had reserved it from the library before I read the first one which on reflection, is quite a strange thing for me to do. I’m just hoping that I enjoy it more.

    1. I agree on both counts about the characters lacking depth and the near absence of the backstory for Leonie’s coven. I felt that mentioning Leonie’s break off from HMRC warranted more of a history—maybe not a full one since it’s the first book, but at least give the reader more background so it doesn’t seem like it was only included as a political agenda piece. Maybe book 2 will be better. I saw Chris mention in a past post that it was, but I’m still not inclined to pick it up soon given all the other wonderful books out there. Anyway, I hope you like book 2 better, fingers crossed.

    1. It does lead with a lot of messages alongside the plot. But there are so many messages just plopped into it that it’s very unfocused.

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