Callie has always known that they’re going to be a knight, just like their papa, who was once one of the most accomplished defenders of the land. The problem is, the whole world seems to think that Callie should learn magic like the girl they’ve never been, and that only boys should learn to fight with swords.
That’s ridiculous, of course—and luckily, Callie’s dads know that as well as they do. Still, although Callie has found a home where they’re accepted for who they are, they’ve always dreamed of going to Helston, the country’s capital, where young hopefuls train to become knights, and where their papa once fought at the king’s side. So when their papa is summoned to Helston to help train the prince, Callie leaps at the chance to visit and find their place.
It turns out, though, that not everyone else is so pleased with the prospect of Callie becoming a knight—particularly the chancellor who runs the city, who insists that Callie learn to use their much-hated magic and stay away with the women instead of becoming the knight they’ve always known they’re supposed to be. All their life, Callie's thought that Helston would be a fairytale, but it turns out it's full of bigots and discrimination. And when Callie stands up for themself, it doesn't go well.
No one else seems to be struggling to cram themselves into Helston's strict roles, but Callie soon discovers that’s not the case—they meet Willow, a crown prince who’s never wanted to be a warrior; Elowen, the chancellor’s fierce and capable daughter; and Edwyn, her brother, who more than anything wants to fit the mold his father has set for him. Helston’s rigid society is just hurting everyone, and Callie already got enough of that kind of manipulation when they were younger. Together, it’s up to Callie and their new friends to stand up against a society that hates them—or else be forced to become the people they’ve never wanted to be.
I absolutely loved Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston. At once a fun fantasy adventure, an unflinching story about hatred and prejudice, and a brilliant, affirming reflection of everyone’s uniqueness in the face of an inflexible society, this is definitely one of my favorites of 2023 so far. Esme Symes-Smith draws from many familiar tropes but makes them fully their own, creating an utterly amazing setting that feels more complete and well-rounded than any I can recently remember. Helston perfectly reflects the beauty and deep-rooted imperfections that coexist in our world, too, which helped to make it heartbreaking and vivid in equal measure.
However, that said, the characters were definitely my favorite part of Sir Callie. Callie, of course, was a favorite—their bravery, determination, and sheer stubbornness made me fall in love with them immediately, and I’m so glad there will be more books in the series for me to get to know them better! But every single character in this book were spectacular and nuanced, particularly Willow and Edwyn, whose struggles, though very different, are each so full of realism and power that I couldn’t help but root for them through all the stories twists and turns. A special shout-out has to go to the chancellor, not because I liked him, but because I hated him with such a burning passion—it’s a rare villain who I truly despise, but he went above and beyond in this particular department.
Although Sir Callie was sometimes hard to read—where many books, especially middle-grade fantasy, will skirt around painful topics, this one does the reverse—this was one of my favorite parts about it. Esme Symes-Smith’s willingness to face even incredibly difficult topics head-on was part of why I connected so deeply with Callie and their story; they perfectly encapsulate incredible messiness of reckoning and healing.
I highly recommend Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston to readers ages eleven and up—if you’ve ever wanted to read a queer mash-up of a Tamora Pierce book, this one’s for you!