Would you run away with the misfits, or try to change the system from within? More importantly, who would you choose as your two rebel queer dads? I once had a dream that cartoon swashbuckler Seahawk and internet chef Ben Ebbrell were together, and were my queer dads. They had me over for barbecue and made vegan burgers and it was lovely. The ethical, caring queer dads of Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston, however, give them a run for their money.
Esme Symes-Smith’s debut novel is a delightful, sunny adventure. It's the book to stay up late reading or to read in your blanket fort—a book for when you crave the experience of reading adventure like you had as a kid, for when as an adult those books don't work the same. I can't call it cozy, because the stakes do get high, but mostly it's the cozy that midgrade fantasy dreams are made of.
The story starts with Callie, a nonbinary teen in a medieval-inspired world, who dreams about becoming a knight. For a touch of backstory, Callie used to live with their binarist, abusive mother, longing for the rare visits of their neglectful father. Their mother regularly misgendered them, and said transphobic things, and Callie was barely able to take it. One day, after a particularly horrible exchange, their father realized how bad things really were. He stepped up and became an accountable, present father. He and Callie left the house that Callie was abused in. They ended up living in the forest with a band of merry misfits. There, Callie found a queer utopia, like Arden Forest in Shakespeare's As You Like It. They joined a loving, responsible community where they could be nonbinary to their heart’s content.
Callie thrives there for two years, and their father even finds romantic love with a lovely wizard. Callie lives happily with their two fathers and a community. They dream of being a knight and plan to pursue that dream one day. Their father, who used to be a high-ranking knight, trains them in riding and fighting, as well as the ethics of knighthood;
Callie has magical powers, but is not interested in developing them, as magic is strongly gendered in their society. One day, Callie’s knight father receives a message summoning him urgently to Helston, to court. He must help train the prince for an important tournament, and the safety of the kingdom is at stake. Callie asks to take part in the tournament as well, for the chance to train to be a knight. And so starts their adventure. They must fight a transphobic, binarist social system, and help save the prince—but not in the way one might expect.
One of the things I liked about the novel is the way it envisions how things might be better. For example, some of the adults in the book demonstrate communication and parenting skills that seem simple, yet rare. At one point, Callie muses about liking the way things are at their forest community, where everyone is direct. As their father Neil says: “the world is full of enough scary things […] it’s a waste of time being afraid of your friends.”
Another thing I love about the book is that it is not epic. Tell me about friendships, about the characters sneaking out to feed snacks to the horses, about secret passages and weapon storerooms, moonlit training and drawing sessions. Personally, I would take character development over an epic battle any day. (I would often take blank pages over an epic battle, to be truthful. But the point stands.)
Similarly, there is very little romance in the book. Don't get me wrong, I ship with the best of them. But it's rare and wonderful to get a story without romance. The story can instead focus on other meaningful relationships, including parents and children, siblings, and—best of all—chosen family. The main character finds several close friends, starting with El, a powerful witch who is forced to hide her abilities behind diplomacy and demure femininity. Callie also befriends a shy, gender nonconforming noble, who is being forced to learn to swordfight rather than practice his art and magic. I also really loved the character of Neil, Callie’s found father, who has been through the rough things and came out wise and kind, as well as somewhat singed.
While the main characters are appealing, I would have loved more diversity in the novel, especially in the main characters. All seem to be white, thin, and non-disabled, except for some possible PTSD which is not dealt with well. The book depicts two adult women with dealing with grief and PTSD: one is framed as an irresponsible, neglectful parent; the other is framed as violent and irrationally vengeful. I really hope this ableist framing changes in future volumes.
It’s a shame, because elsewhere Callie problematizes and raises questions—is it acceptable to take to opportunity to leave, when more marginalized people can’t leave? What happens if you choose to resist, but find out that those resisting are exploiting you as well? At the same time, what about those who can't stay? The book explores the same question as is embodies in the battle between Marvel’s Magneto and Professor X: resistance versus assimilation. While, for good reasons, for many marginalized people Magneto is the go-to option, sometimes this choice is made without pausing to make sure it is the best for a given situation. It seems that this book suggests the best option is creating tolerant communities like the merry misfits of the forest; but it also recognizes that not everyone has that option.
The book starts with a beautiful note from the author. I appreciate it for including a content warning, a feature that makes most any book more accessible and less likely to cause damage. But in Callie, the content warning (for transphobia) is a sad, caring, heartfelt letter to readers, particularly to queer readers. “[I]f you are afraid and your own wounds run too deep, then please set aside this book until you are ready. Callie will still be here for you when you are. Every person and every character’s path through the darkness is different, and I hope the stories of these journeys will help you find your own. Know that you are not alone no matter who tries to make you believe otherwise.” I cried while typing this out, and again, now, rereading it.
Overall, Sir Callie is the kind of book that, had I read it as a child, I would have now been less jaded and scarred. I am glad for children who have it these days, and infuriated on behalf of the children who could have had it but are used by politicians as pawns instead. This is a good book for middle grade or young adult readers, then, but is definitely not only for them. Get it for yourself to read with your favorite tea. Read it out loud to a kid you love. Hide a copy at a Florida library.