Book Title: Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston
Author: Esme Symes-Smith
Release Date: November 8, 2022
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, LGBTQ+
My rating: 3.5/5 Stars
In a magical medieval world filled with dragons, shape-shifters, and witches, a twelve-year-old hero will search for their place as an impending war threatens. A thrilling middle-grade series opener that stars a nonbinary tween and explores identity and gender amid sword fights.
My name is Callie, and I’m not a girl. I am here as Papa’s squire, and I want to train as a knight.
In a world where girls learn magic and boys train as knights, twelve-year-old nonbinary Callie doesn’t fit in anywhere. And you know what? That’s just fine. Callie has always known exactly what they want to be, and they’re not about to let a silly thing like gender rules stand in their way.
When their ex-hero dad is summoned back to the royal capital of Helston to train a hopeless crown prince as war looms, Callie lunges at the opportunity to finally prove themself worthy to Helston’s great and powerful.
Except the intolerant great and powerful look at Callie and only see girl.
Trapped in Helston’s rigid hierarchy, Callie discovers they aren’t alone–there’s Elowen, the chancellor’s brilliant daughter, whose unparalleled power is being stifled; Edwyn, Elowen’s twin brother, locked in a desperate fight to win his father’s approval; and Willow, the crown prince who was never meant to be king.
In this start to an epic series packed with action, humor, and heart, Callie and their new friends quickly find themselves embedded in an ancient war–the only hope to defeat the dragons and witches outside the kingdom lies in first defeating the bigotry within.
Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston is an important read that deals with some heavy topics. I do wish I’d been a little more prepared for how dark it would be at times, because in all honesty, I was expecting a much more light-hearted read. Unfortunately, I think this affected my feelings towards the story while I was reading it. Even though I did have some difficulties, I did enjoy reading it, and I think it’s one that should be read and used to start some very important conversations about gender norms in our society.
Callie, the main character of the story, is a headstrong and brave person just looking for their place in the world. They arrive in Helston thinking they may be able to find a place there, but intolerance and bigotry run rampant in Helston. Callie then teams up with Elowen and Willow, who both feel like outsiders themselves. Those who know me know I love a found family, and there was plenty of that to go around in this story! I loved the bonds the three of them shared, and was rooting for Edwyn to overcome his internal turmoil over his father the whole time.
Edwyn was the most compelling character, and I wish we’d gotten even more of his story. I have no doubt we will in the sequel though, so I’m excited about that. He’s a perfect example of how intolerance can continue to grow from generation to generation, despite his thoughts being completely different from his parents. Even so, he’s desperate to prove his worth in their eyes, even if that means conforming himself to an image he hates, agreeing with ideals that aren’t his, and completely losing his sense of self. This is sadly a reality that many young people experience and go through, so I thought the inclusion of his character was really well done. I especially liked the contrast between him and Elowen. Two siblings who grew up in the same environment but ultimately came to completely different conclusions on how to handle the hand they’d been dealt.
I truly loved Callie, Willow, and Elowen’s exploration of identity. Fitting in, especially in a society that is already against you from the start, is never going to be easy. I appreciated how the three of them tiptoed the line between going along and outward defiance. It shows that sometimes, no matter how we feel, we have to hold back our true opinions as a matter of safety. However, if we can, we absolutely should speak out against the injustices we see and experience.
The biggest reason Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston is not a four stars from me is because of how difficult it was to read. Not writing style wise–that was perfectly fine. I mean, emotionally. Because we deal with such a hateful and bigoted community, Callie experiences a lot of hate, and is constantly misgendered. My heart was heavy the entire time, and every time someone said something unkind to Callie, Willow, or Elowen, I became so sad and angry. This is a reality that many young people face. It’s a reality that anyone who is different from what society deems “normal” faces. It shouldn’t be like this, but unfortunately it is.
Which is why books like these are so necessary. I’m so glad it exists, and even though it was hard to read at times, I’m still happy I read it. While I am a firm believer that we deserve stories with happy trans characters, stories like these are also vital to opening a dialogue—especially with younger people—so that we can do our best to reverse this ugly cycle of intolerance we find ourselves stuck in time and time again.
So, even though it was hard, I highly recommend Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston. Just be prepared it is not a fun and light read. There are sad and heavy topics discussed throughout, but it is worth it.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a digital ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
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