Monday, June 26, 2023

Review: The Shadow Cabinet by Juno Dawson

The sequel to HMRC unfortunately lacks the punch of its predecessor, but promises good things for what follows next.

It was always going to be difficult, coming after Her Majesty's Royal Coven. Not just because it was a pretty solid book (although it was), but because of how it ended things - it left us in a position with no Niamh as a viewpoint character, and, at least for me, she was one of the most useful viewpoints we had. Maybe not the best, maybe not the most sympathetic, but the most useful - she was a voice of insight into what the eponymous HMRC itself was doing, while being outside enough to be involved in all the action, the bridge between the worlds of the story. Leonie may be the more sympathetic, more morally laudable one, setting up a coven for minority witches who feel the government backed stuff is full of problems, or maybe Theo, about whom all the trouble of the first story revolves, and who feels often to be the true heroine of events. But Niamh is involved in everything, talks to everyone, has a reason to be involved on all sides and so is the great facilitator of the story, all while being still plenty sympathetic enough, with her heart in the right place and sufficiently strong morals that you're on her side, even if she's not all the way up the scale. In purely story logistical terms, she's critical.

So, when you cut out one of the most important voices of your first book, how does the sequel work? You have to replace her. And Dawson does do that... but none of the replacements are really satisfactory.

Most prominently, Ciara, Niamh's evil twin, is inserted into the story and she's really just... not as good. She's less sympathetic (though not completely without her pull - she's hardly had an easy life, as we soon discover), less involved, less knowledgeable (being in a coma for a decade will do that), and just less pulled together. She's someone the story feels like it happens to, for the most part, rather than someone who really has much deliberate effect on the turn of events. I'd say the majority of the chapters are told from her perspective, and by the end it definitely began to feel claustrophobic for it, just because she's so walled off, so hidden from so much of what's going on with everyone else, it's hard to feel like what she sees and does is totally connected to the rest of them.

Is this deliberate? I think so. It fits in very well with the progression of her emotional narrative for us to feel that way. But is it fun? Not really. It works, but even as it achieves what I'm sure Dawson set out for it to achieve, it undercuts a lot of what made the first book good - it was a fast-paced, easy, character driven romp.

It also has the problem that Ciara is spending much of the story hiding herself, pretending to be her twin. And so the audience has information that most of the characters in the story lack, and that can be hard to manage without it getting awfully grating, awfully quickly. Obviously Ciara knows, so we're not alone with the information, but after a while, the frustration of other characters acting in ways that don't help, due to information they don't have and we do... builds. It's inevitable.

And it's magnified by the other problem - the lack of Niamh is partially solved by spreading the viewpoints out to a wider pool. We have more characters, sometimes one offs, whose perspective we get on the story, which of course means more people who don't know what's really going on. The widening of the POV net also necessitates a shallowing of each character's depth, however, even with the additional bulk of pages The Shadow Cabinet has compared to HMRC. I don't object to some of the characters from the first book who fulfilled more of a side role in the story getting pulled in to give their POV now, and in some cases welcome it - Luke, a non-magical character, is an extremely useful view of things to have - but it's not quite done enough to leave the reader feeling satisfied. They're not quite main characters, even still.

That being said, one of the main strengths of the book is Theo's perspective in her own chapters. Theo, teenaged, scared, constantly alert to things that may throw her personal situation back into disarray, is one of the few parts of the story where the lack of knowledge of Ciara's role works. Because Theo suspects. She's smart, strongly magical, and has the opportunity to really see differences, and so the suspicion she has forms a great piece of character work on her dynamic with Niamh, and how she relates to the world, and how that in turn relates back to her history. She's also a very compelling view of a teenager - simultaneously entirely plausible, with very teenaged concerns and slips of judgment, but still very accessible to an adult reader. Her chapters and her role in the events of the story were by far the most enjoyable part for me, and I hope we get even more from her going forward.

Outside of characters, much of what was strong about the first book does remain - the world building has all the hallmarks of good urban fantasy, and blends very well with the real world, picking and choosing which bits to retain and which to change. Much like the first, Dawson is interested in being true to the societal and political realities of Britain to tell her story, whether that's transphobia, racism, class dynamics or Anglo-Irish tensions, but in this it heads more into the directly political, in sometimes interesting ways. We see and interact with the mundane Prime Minister in this, and Dawson has chosen not to make him a direct pastiche of any particular figure, but rather have him take characteristics of several recent Tory PMs (there's definitely some David Cameron in there, but also some Boris Johnson too)... I have to wonder if this is because the story was written when we were so busy chucking one and getting another that she could have no certainty who'd be in charge by the time the book hit publication.

But she also engages a little deeper than that - there's a government aide with strong Dominic Cummings vibes (which gets interesting quickly), and a witch who opens us up to a view that, in witch society, with its strong notes of female... if not supremacy then at least casual disdain for men... even there, we have some people open to accepting "tradwife" style ideologies. With a witchy aesthetic overlay, of course. When this blends with the wider story themes around patriarchy and power dynamics, and the need for some people to see themselves as inherently superior, it lends her whole witch society another layer of realistic complexity that was part of what made the first book work so well for me.

Because this is not, fundamentally, one of those "what if women were the powerful ones" simple stories, like The Power or a hundred others. Juno Dawson acknowledges that even though her siloed witch community may be powerful and may have their own, separate ideologies and prejudices and histories, they are not immune to the power structures endemic in the world around them, and nor are they so inherently "better" that they can choose to rise above them simply by being smart enough, kind enough or in tune with nature enough. They are people living in a complex, intersecting world, full of intersecting identities, problems and relationships, and all parts of that touch all others, for better and for worse.

This, truly, is the strength of the story. Taking the elements of a fairly standard urban fantasy idea and infusing them with something richer at their foundation, to make the whole that much sturdier, deeper and more interesting. In the first book, this was accompanied by the pacey storytelling, the interesting characters and a general surprise and delight to find it doing what it was doing, when it may not have been expected.

However, in book two, the delight has worn off a little. We come in expecting what we had before, and so our bar is that bit higher. And, alas, it has very much succumbed to second in a trilogy syndrome - a lot of the plot feels like filler, like a way of joining us from the first to the inevitable last, and scene-setting for something greater moving in the background. There's an ongoing thread of the plot around the tripartite satanic background enemy, but it remains in that background as other pieces move around it, giving it the necessary time to build up for the climax. Character elements too are clearly being manoeuvred into place, and so the payoff at the end of the story feels... subdued. We're still clearly waiting for the real ending.

But... but. Especially in the final section of the book, some of those bits of scene-setting are genuinely tantalising. Enough to make book two all better? No, not really. But enough to make me think book three may manage to be just as special as book one? Well... I'm certainly hopeful.


The Math

Highlights: returning to an interesting world with genuine richness and complexity, getting more depth on some interesting minor characters from book one, Theo is great

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference: Juno Dawson, The Shadow Cabinet, [Harper Voyager, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea