HMRC and The Shadow Cabinet – A Direct Attack on Terfism in the UK, and then some more magic By Millie Russell

As someone who grew up on such incredible books as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Warrior Cats (don’t you dare laugh) and many others, fantasy and fantastical worlds in fiction have always been my passion. My little world to escape into whenever. You likely know the story already, and quite possibly may relate, so I won’t bore you.

However, I know that a lot of young LGBT youth and allies feel betrayed by authors we once idolised, who crafted immensely fantastical worlds for us, who turned out in the end to have some rather outdated, and often hateful opinions about our people.

If you are one of these people, and are looking for a book that has witches, magical institutions, strong worldbuilding, a marvellous cast of all incredibly realistic characters, and a strong plotline of social discourse lain out for the reader’s pleasure, I can recommend Her Majesty’s Royal Coven and The Shadow Cabinet by Juno Dawson, both of which are the first two novels in a promised trilogy with the third still waiting to come out (pun slightly intended.)

A little introduction to Juno Dawson. She is a British author who has made what anyone would call some impactful contributions to YA literature through her works This Book is Gay and Clean. She is a transgender woman, and with her unique but hard-hitting writing voice she has addressed plenty of complex issues which have in recent years become more relevant to UK society, such as mental health and LGBT issues. Her storytelling skills are exceptional, and it is those skills, and her themes, I will be looking at today.

In this review, I will be discussing my major likes and dislikes, briefly touching on the first book, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, and the presentation of trans identity and discourse in the UK; then I will discuss the second book, The Shadow Cabinet. This will be mostly spoiler free, as (spoiler!) I highly encourage anyone into fantasy to pick up a copy of these two books.

I loved the characters with all my heart, and they were, for me, the strongest aspect of the novels. Juno Dawson utilises the “Different POV per chapter” formula that many YA novels incorporate, and she does it flawlessly, and through this we follow our main cast of Niamh, Helena, Leonie, Elle, Theo, and later Luke, Chinara, and Ciara. As a friend group that have been together since their teenage years, it seems glaringly obvious that a lot of the time, they have more history than they do things in common. This causes obvious tensions in the group, and relationships begin to fray across the course of the two books. A constant theme is the ties of sisterhood, and whether it is enough to bind women with many differences. I personally ate it up every time.

I loved that the main cast were a far cry from many young adult or children’s novels in the fantasy genre. This is no Harry Potter. In a nice twist of common tropes in fantasy, the action is twenty or so years in the past; the cast, in the present time, are all in their late thirties. Many have been or are married, some are widows, and a couple have children. Much of the novel references and speaks on a rich, flowing tapestry of a backstory they all share in which the main antagonist, Dabney Hale, wreaked havoc on the world they fought to protect. It is this past that haunts them like a spectre throughout the first book. The characters are presented to the reader as though on a platter, premature, already richly developed, with personality, painful history, and tonnes of lore. But there is still room for growth and further development. I love seeing mature characters, especially as society has a habit of treating lives, especially women’s lives, as though they have an expiration date, and will go bad when they hit thirty.

I love seeing mature characters, especially as society has a habit of treating lives, especially women’s lives, as though they have an expiration date, and will go bad when they hit thirty.

The personality of the cast was distinct and well fleshed out through their character voices. All characters were complex, realistic, believable, but also had clear personality types that anyone who grew up around girls could see. There was the pushover, the leader, the mother hen, the rebel, the undiagnosed sociopath. The overall cast together helps to portray the many facets of girlhood in an uncannily familiar way, and also what girlhood and womanhood could be in a world where some women can still be both subjugated, and some of the most powerful beings on the planet.

Something I must say, before I continue with the pros: I did not fully care for the writing style. The dialogue was incredibly witty, reminiscent of gossip with a good girl friend, but the narration, in the third person limited style to represent each character’s inner world, was not so enjoyable. The colloquialism and frequent swearing weren’t for me, and a few times Dawson slips when writing younger characters, who come across as gen z written by millennials, which breaks immersion. This is my opinion, however. I would recommend just reading a few pages of the first book in Waterstones to see if it is for you. Dawson’s writing style is, in the end, impactful, powerful, and unique. Realism is her specialty.

One thing to note with Juno Dawson’s style in both books: she is not subtle. If you are looking for underlying subtext, allegories, metaphors, and beating about the bush, you will not get it here. These books are like uncut gemstones: beautiful, raw and real, but can cut you if you do not protect yourself. The first book is a direct exploration of transphobic ideology and discourse, and a certain POV in the book may be hard to read for some people.

These books are like uncut gemstones: beautiful, raw and real, but can cut you if you do not protect yourself.

Now, the worldbuilding. I went feral for it. Worldbuilding is my passion, and the crafting of deep, believable, and complex fictional worlds with as much internal logic as the world we live in now is a skill that any writer should have in their arsenal, and it is a skill that Juno Dawson has perfected. The world of HMRC and TSC feel real and believable, with a rich selection of magical specialities and subtypes to learn about, numerous realistic magical organisations with realistic goals and belief systems. There is religion influenced by UK native pagan mythos, wicca, and other belief systems. There are demons and a demon hierarchy. There is demonic possession and deals made. The magic system of HMRC is a nice mix of hard and soft (hard being rigidly ruled and soft being unexplained, Gandalf style “screw it I summon a dragon”) with certain parts being explained well, and others allowing for a certain degree of mystery.

One thing I also loved was that the book is practically a love letter to the Yorkshire countryside, Hebden Bridge specifically. Both books, especially the first, are filled with short but evocative descriptions of the countryside, and it was nice to see such a lovely and underrated part of England represented.

One of my favourite characters was Leonie. As a black lesbian, she naturally doesn’t mesh into the sharp cookie cutter of Her Majesty's Royal Coven, which is, for the most part, predominantly white. In what Helena sees as the ultimate betrayal, she forms an alternate organisation, rich in people of colour, named Diaspora. Leonie represents one of the best aspects of these books: the conflict of magical institutions. The word “Royal” may bring ideas to mind. But I can assure you that these books are not royalist. The organisation of HMRC, in both novels, is a government aligned agency, working in secret, much like Harry Potter's 'Ministry of Magic', but with more thought put into its inner corruption. The organisation appears to serve crown and citizen, but only cares about womankind, with a bias for witchkind, with HMRC witches coming first. Intersectionality is explored in depth, especially in the first book. Women, witches, though oppressed, are not immune to the awful societal hierarchies of race, class, and sexuality.

The first book opens in Hebden Bridge, where the retired veterinarian healer, Niamh, takes in a young, traumatised, and silent “warlock” whom oracles call the “sullied child”; a future harbinger of destruction. Niamh will look after this child, Theo, in the face of hatred, in a world that is telling Theo who they are and what they are. Conflicts begin to arise when Helena, the only woman of their group still sitting within HMRC’s clutches, now as the high priestess, decides waiting for this potential destruction is not enough, and demands action. But there is, of course, a twist. I will not beat around the bush as I have seen other reviews do and I will give this slight spoiler: Theo is a trans girl, so on top of the threat of the potential apocalypse, there are stresses all about of the destruction of category as they once knew it, how to be supportive, and the questions of witch covens and trans inclusion.

This book is an excellent exploration of the flaws of terfism, and the blatant and growing transphobia in the UK. Theo is an immensely beautifully written and complex character, heartbreaking and wonderful. I loved her with all of my heart, especially because the novel masterfully drives home that she is, indeed, a child in need of protection and nurturing. Yes, there is the found family trope, and this too I ate up.

The second book took an interesting turn that I for one both liked and disliked. The themes of institutions, nature, hierarchy, transphobia, and intersectionality were thin threads that frayed as the book neglected them. However, this book felt as though it was attempting to do too much in terms of themes, as though trying to spin many plates at once. Theo? She was hardly relevant until perhaps the last page, almost gone. I missed her for the majority of the book. The conflict of magical institutions? Almost entirely gone. Whilst the first book had these themes present and vibrant throughout, this book seemed to dim them in preparation for who appeared to be the final villain: Dabney Hale.

Dabney Hale threatens to subjugate witchkind once and for all, and to return the world to its “natural order”. He parrots right-wing incel ideology as though it’s the Bible, and in the light of recent issues, he felt all too real.

The theme of misogyny is the most glaring and obvious in this book, and Hale is horrible, intimidating, ever present and chillingly real throughout the vibrant backstory. He was a lurking spectre throughout. He made my skin crawl when he was on the page, and the fact that I hated him so much spoke to Dawson’s excellent writing.

I will say though, overall, I did feel this book slightly let me down. The lack of continuation of a few of the themes, and the fact that many plotlines to me, felt pointless, could be placed down to opinion. However, there was one thing I did enjoy: more demons, more magic, more worldbuilding. It was quite incredible. I also enjoyed how a new theme of deception and infiltration was created masterfully through the morally complex and corrupt Ciara.

The ending of the first book set up for the second book perfectly so I will not spoil. And the second book, albeit quite rushed, set up for the final, upcoming novel in the trilogy through a promise. A promise of more worldbuilding, magic, and demonic entities.

Overall, the first book in the series was incredible. The second was solidly good. And the promise of the last is too much to resist. If you enjoy found family, strong LGBT representation, complex characters, and a unique writing style, I recommend at least checking out the first book.

I fell in love with these characters, and took a dive into the worldbuilding, and I do hope, if you decide to dip into the world of HMRC, you will too.

Because, after all, I do believe we queer people deserve plenty more books. So keep them coming Juno Dawson!