Book Review | Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (ARC)

I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.

In Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston, the first book of a new series, Callie is determined to become a knight. However, in this society, girls train in magic and boys train to be knights. Callie, being neither a boy nor a girl, won’t stand for these arbitrary rules, and when their famous knight father is called back to the city of Helston to train the prince, Callie goes along too. But Helston proves to be a difficult place to be different, and Callie has to deal with a strict hierarchy, bigotry, and obstacles every step of the way. However, Callie soon makes friends with the chancellor’s daughter and the prince himself. Both of them are being stifled by this society, too, and so with Callie the three of them seek to carve out a space for themselves—and maybe make a better world for everyone, too.

This is such a sweet, empowering story. I loved seeing a fantasy story set in a vaguely medieval Europe–inspired land that features a nonbinary protagonist, and I think it was handled really well. Callie faces a decent amount of prejudice, misunderstanding, and people refusing to acknowledge their true gender identity, but throughout they have help and strong belief in themself that’s really nice to see.

As for Callie’s character, I liked them. Seeing their journey, including confronting adults who should have people’s best interests at heart but do not, is really moving. I also liked their recognition that magic, typically a girl’s ability, is not lesser despite the way society has tried to convince everyone it is. Other characters such as Willow and Elowen are great, but my favorite characters are easily Callie’s father and step-father, Nick and Neal. They are so cool, but also full of depth and flaws. I cannot wait to see where the series goes, so I can learn more about them.

However, as good as the characters are, I think the structure of this book was a little odd. We see Callie and Nick living with Neal and several others at the beginning, but almost instantly leave that place for Helston. I would have liked to see more of that life and how it has been for Callie, to contrast Helston, especially considering there were other characters there that we know basically nothing about. I assume this little camp will be revisited in the second book, but it still felt weird here.

I also was a little underwhelmed by the magic. It felt very vague, and any knowledge Callie gained regarding how to wield it kind of occurred off-screen, which I didn’t love. I also want to see more of the dragon! Though that’s mostly a personal problem—I love dragons, even if this one is an antagonist. I’m sure we’ll see more in the second book, but I was left wanting.

All that said, Sir Callie is a really delightful book. Some elements aren’t as fleshed out as they could have been, and the pacing felt like it could have been better, but overall, I had so much fun. There’s struggle and injustice and danger, but it’s all so well balanced by humor and friendship and hope. As I mentioned, there are instances of misgendering, as well as child abuse and general violence (though the abuse does not really happen on the page). However, nothing is gratuitous or too intense for the target audience’s ages, and the characters who commit these bad acts are not rewarded within the narrative. And in the end, this story is full of optimism, strength, and empowerment. It’s sweet and fun, and even though I need to stop getting into new book series, I don’t regret starting this one at all!

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston is out today, November 8th, 2022!

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