Content warning: This review, like the book, contains mention of sexual abuse trauma, transphobia, transmisogyny, suicidal ideation, and discussion of suicide, all of which are dealt with beautifully in the book, but be forewarned.
My review of The Calyx Charm by May Peterson is an extremely biased, personal one, which you should know up front since I’m about to gush uncontrollably for the next couple of thousand words.
I read the book after a long search for fantasy romances featuring transfeminine protagonists, which are exceedingly rare—so rare, in fact, that I read a whole-ass trilogy just to get to it, even though I’m notoriously bad at reading series. I’m grateful that I read the Sacred Dark trilogy, and you should too if what I wrote in my reviews of Lord of the Last Heartbeat and The Immortal City appeals to you. But I’m also going to give you permission to dive right into The Calyx Charm if you’re as desperate for transfem representation in fantasy romance as I was. Peterson gives you enough background in this book to understand and appreciate the story without having read the other books, though it will hit a little harder if you’ve read the excellent Lord of the Last Heartbeat (there’s not as much overlap with The Immortal City, which is a delightful book on its own).
On to The Calyx Charm, which opens thus:
I dreamed, as I sometimes did, of killing my father.
My hair was long and prehensile, fiery tendrils that snared him like chains. He always struggled in the dream, just as I had struggled in waking life.
But in the dream I always won. I overpowered him, instead of the other way around. My hair was long and gleaming and flawless, and it drowned him in vengeance. I stood over him and wove a spider’s web of angry tresses, of scented mollygirl’s hair, the luminous female power he had always tried to kill in me.
Pardon me while I wipe away tears rereading and typing this opening. It’s so heartbreaking, so achingly gorgeous, so empowering, so prescient of the struggle that plays out in the book and all the reasons I love it. This romance is like a phoenix, rising fiery from the ashes of trauma, immolating the self-doubt that has rained down on Violetta for her entire life and transforming it into something so beautiful and powerful that no hate can ever touch it. It’s a romance whose glorious consummation is made all the more powerful by the way we see the character struggle with the transfeminine experience of suppression, erasure, gaslighting, and abuse. It’s a victory so sweet it brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions throughout the book, more times than in any book I have ever read.
I mentioned that I was biased when we started, yeah?
As you can see from the opening, it’s not all flowers and sunshine here. This is a book that grapples with heavy themes, as mentioned in the content warnings: Sexual abuse trauma. Violence. Death. Depictions of suicidal ideation and discussion of suicide. Depictions of transphobia and transmisogyny. Not only does Peterson not shy away from these themes; she leans into them. They are at the core of the story. Without them, the ultimate victory would not taste so sweet. For there is victory. This is a romance, after all. But we go through a lot of heartbreak with Violetta along the way. As she says in the book:
I’m grateful for my despair. Despair may be the only thing that has finally helped me see who I am.
What’s in a name? Violetta. Violated. Physically. Sexually. Emotionally. Societally. But it’s much more than that. Violet, a delicate purple flower, its beauty easily unnoticed or trampled underfoot, but persistent. In the book, we learn that Violetta once saved the world by wielding what’s known as the calyx charm, a power that comes from her hair and which renders those under her protection invincible. In botanical terms, the calyx is the leafy part of the plant that protects the unopened flower bud. The symbolism is beautiful and complex; Violetta uses the charm to protect everyone but herself, and her struggle to see herself as worth protecting, worth saving, worth loving, is part of what moved me the most about the book.
Violetta’s interior monologue is revealing and deeply touching as she describes her experience as a transwoman, or mollygirl, as they’re called in the book.
“I want people to look at me and see a girl. But I want that girl to be me, as I am. Not their standing mental image of a girl. And the girl I am has a flat chest.” I wished for my body to stop being a thing that was wrong. That had to be changed or hidden or justified or excused.
Her transness is not just part of who she is as a person—it’s part of the symbolism of her magic. The calyx charm and her prophetic abilities are described in terms of butterflies and flowers—a blooming, a becoming, something inevitable and beautiful.
In some sleeping plane of my heart, where the future and my body met, the calyx charm had always been germinating in me. When it finally began to bloom, everything changed.
Before the action of the book, when she was only a child, before she was known as Violetta, she saved the kingdom with this magic, and her father repaid her in the vilest way possible. As the book opens, she’s finally summoned the courage to run away from home and live her authentic life.
Enter Tibario, her lifelong friend, who knew and loved her as a child, though he did not know her true name or identity. Like many characters in the Sacred Dark trilogy, he undergoes a queer awakening/transformation through a major shift in the nature of his existence (no spoilers here). Once he is reborn, so to speak, he not only accepts the long-suppressed love for the boy he once thought he knew, he embraces his love for the woman he was never open to seeing, or who was not yet ready to share who she was with him. It’s a complicated, messy romance, full of frank conversations heavy with sensitivity and nuance, and I wanted to stand up and cheer through my tears as I watched the characters using their words with each other. I did want to throw my e-reader across the room at one point when they had a perfect chance to kiss and did not, but that’s all in the romance game, and I got my smooches not long after.
Speaking of smooches. And smut. If you know me as a reader, you know how important these things are to me, and Peterson absolutely has my number. There’s an unmatched tenderness to the intimate scenes, especially early on as the two feel out what each other wants, that is as heart-fluttering as it is loins-stirring. It goes beyond simple consent. It’s a series of tentative gestures, light touches, little words, tiny kisses, everything flowing together in a physical and emotional ballet that’s not afraid to get a little dirty and funny as we work toward crescendo. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I both laughed and cried a little at the intimate scenes. They’re that good. But not only because of the scenes themselves; it’s the culmination of everything that came before, what these two characters have gone through to be ready to be this vulnerable with each other. It’s simply breathtaking.
Of course, there’s more to the book than the romance and the smut, though these are my favorite parts. Another thing that really moved me was the specific ways Peterson draws queerness in the book. Creative in-world terms for trans, nonbinary, cis, etc include words like mollygirl, tomking, androgyne, and dualistic, and it feels real and playful and frankly joyous. And she uses the word ‘queer’ quite liberally, which is a delight to read.
Different parts of the world are more or less open to queerness; some characters are free and open, while others are full-on homophobic and transphobic, and there’s a lot of in-between. Not unlike the real world. Of special interest were the queer subcultures of Vermanga, the city in which the story takes place. Many scenes take place in the Fragrant Rose, a teahouse where I would gladly spend all of my leisure hours:
Tomking men, impossibly handsome in tailored suits or dockworker garb or the bright livery of tea hosts. They fluttered gracefully amidst their mollygirl peers, and people who were neither or were sexes entirely their own. Their mutually enmeshed presence infused the teahouse with a luminous queer energy, as though even the walls were singing.
Once again, I am moved to near tears just typing out these words from the book. Violetta grew up being used, abused, and gaslit, so finding such a haven of acceptance means everything to her. And it’s not only acceptance of who she is and what she’s been through; it’s acceptance of the very real struggle of staying alive. Peterson does not shy away from the threat of suicide that is all too common in the trans community. I’m going to share several quotes that showcase how frankly and sensitively the topic is dealt with in the book. First, from Violetta’s perspective:
Suicide was always a threat, a killer more subtle and persistent than the most vengeful of ghosts. It haunted our kind with a special doggedness.
But Rosaline, the proprietor of the Fragrant Rose, takes care of all the queer souls in the city with compassion and understanding like a mother hen. She is there to comfort Violetta, to listen, to offer words of support. When Violetta recounts having been rescued from near drowning, Rosaline gently asks if she’d meant to take her life. Violetta assures her that was not the case, and Rosaline’s answer is quite telling.
Rosaline sighed. “I don’t mean any judgment. The victim is not to blame, not in this house, not wherever I have power. Suicide is murder by a hand that happens to be away at the time. But I want you to live, Vi.”
There is so much more to say on how expertly Peterson deals with issues of queer identities and the challenges queer people face in society, but hopefully I’ve given you enough of a taste to know if this aspect of the book appeals to you. But there’s a fantasy plot too! And it’s a good one!
The main plot of the book, besides Violetta and Tibario’s beautiful romance, is Violetta’s fight to reclaim the calyx charm, which has inexplicably passed on to her father, the tyrant who abused her as a child and who now wields it over the entire kingdom. It makes him invincible to numerous assassination attempts, and unlikely alliances form as Violetta makes peace with old rivals in a final bid to fulfil the dream of the prologue: to reclaim her power and use it to put her father in his place.
I won’t spoil how it plays out, but it’s quite complicated and not at all what I expected. Violetta’s gift of prophesy causes her more despair than hope as the future and the past swirl together in a vortex of epic fantasy goodness. There’s sorcery, witches, a cat-shifter, teleportation, alchemy, and something called a dragon-soul that threatens to engulf the entire kingdom in fire and ash. To be honest, the denouement was a little more epic and drawn-out than I might have preferred—I’m not much of an epic fantasy reader, but it’s sure to appeal to those who like their magic big and mind-blowing, and the tie-ins with Violetta’s personal story arc are deeply satisfying.
I haven’t cared this much about a book in a very long time. I read it slowly because I wanted to savor it, to study what Peterson was saying about Violetta’s identity and her struggles, to appreciate the depth and breadth of representation in the world she has created. Representation feels like a cheap word here, since it’s not a checklist of identities. The world is deeply, inherently, naturally queer, and I urge you to pick up this book and immerse yourself. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, while reading the other books in the series is an excellent idea, if you’re dying for a fantasy romance with a transfem lead, I personally authorize you to jump right into this book. It might just change your life as it did mine.