Should You Read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson?

“The night before the summer solstice, five girls hid in a treehouse. The shack, much too nice to call a shack, was sturdy enough, cradled in the arthritic branches of a three-hundred-year-old oak. Below, in Vance Hall, preparations for tomorrow’s festivities were finalised. It was more an excuse for the grown-ups to fetch up the dustier wines from the cellar two days in a row than it was a planning meeting. Their elders, quite some way past tipsy, truthfully hadn’t noticed the girls were absent.”

– Opening of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven

Helena is the High Priestess of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, the only government-sanctioned coven in the UK. Niamh, once a teacher of young witches, has retired to work as a vet. Leonie has defected to start her own coven, where non-white witches can support each other and celebrate the diversity HMRC seems to inadequately support. Elle just wants to be a wife and mother, a witch in name only. All four started as childhood friends and see themselves as sisters in witchcraft, but they haven’t truly worked together since the war that claimed the lives of Helena’s husband and Niamh’s fiancé, a war that pushed them into violent acts that none of them have forgotten. They have separate goals and separate lives, but when Elle’s daughter turns out to be a witch, threatening the secrets she’s kept from her husband, Niamh takes a new and frighteningly powerful charge under her wing, and oracles start warning Helena that this teenage child will cause a demon to destroy them all, all four face some difficult decisions. Where will they stand? What will they do? And how far will they go to protect what they love?

This fantasy novel, told in rotating perspectives, sets up a world much like ours, except that witches are said to have always been behind the scenes in secret. Or, at times, not so secret. From historical witch trials to events as modern as the coronavirus pandemic, witches are said to have been active and playing a role, for better or for worse. Oracles warned of the pandemic and were listened to or not. Charles Manson was apparently a warlock who believed those with magical powers should rule over those without. The witches we follow grew up loving the Spice Girls and make pop culture references freely.

More importantly for the plot, they grapple with contemporary prejudices. All have strong feelings about feminism and the importance of sisterhood, but cracks between them grow when Leonie expresses the need for changes in response to racism, and lines are drawn when the young “warlock” Niamh has taken in turns out to be transgender. And when witches fight, oh boy does it get messy. You can certainly expect a lot of magic-packed action scenes.

There are also sex scenes, along with relationship troubles and parenting difficulties and, in the case of one couple, hesitation about whether to become parents. Many women, I think, would find at least one of these characters to be relatable, and the book may have a deeper appeal for them than it did for my perpetually single, child-free self (besides which I don’t know much about the Spice Girls… and there were a lot of references to the Spice Girls). I also imagine many people would be less put off by the amount of casual swearing, including calling each other by a few choice words.

I did, however, love the character of Theo (the transgender teen), and the plot was engaging enough to keep me going, especially towards the end. I was somewhat disappointed that the book didn’t end up addressing what seemed to me a bit of misandry on the part of the main characters and the HMRC in general, which I was initially hoping for when Theo seemed to challenge their assumptions that a warlock can never be as good at magic as a witch, but I do recognize that this is the first book in the series, so I won’t rule out the possibility that character growth will occur during future plot lines. I was also a bit disappointed in the ending, as it seemed to pile on the drama just to set up for the sequel, but I still think the book would be quite enjoyable to those who love a good fantasy with this sort of plotline and/or relate more strongly to one of the main characters than I did. Even the ending might appeal to those who love soap-opera style drama. In the end, I think if the concept of this book is intriguing to you or if you see yourself in one of these characters, you’ll likely have a good, fun read.

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