Effie Calvin's The Queen of Ieflaria features a bi-normative fantasy world, a high femme dragon fighting princess, and a complex dance of religious, magical, and royal politics taking place in ballrooms and garden parties.
Esofi, a princess of Rhodia and devout follower of Talcia, goddess of magic, has been betrothed to crown prince Albion of Ieflaria since early childhood — and unlike many royals, the two have actually been looking forward to their marriage. Years of letters allowed a close friendship to form between them, and with their shared sense of responsibility and vision for Ieflaria's future, the couple was well matched. However, three months before their wedding, just as Esofi was embarking on the journey to Ieflaria, Albion died, leaving her without a husband and his parents scrambling for a new heir.
Though the Ieflarian royals do have a second child, the now crown princess Adale, she brings in an entirely new set of problems, not because of her assigned sex (magic can take care of that when it comes to procreation) but because of her reputation as both disreputable and utterly useless. Unable to meet her parents' and tutors' demands and secure in the knowledge that her beloved older brother would one day take the kingdom firmly in hand, Adale leaned into the royal layabout aesthetic. Spending all of her time drinking, hunting, and carousing with her equally disreputable friends, she knows exactly what people think of her, and she believes they're right.
Adale's ambivalent attitude towards her upcoming marriage and the crown itself leads her parents and Esofi to take drastic measures. Bringing in her royal cousins as potential candidates for the crown and for Esofi's hand, the terms of the game are simple — whoever wins the princess takes the throne. Galvanized by the fact that she knows her cousins are manifestly unfit to rule, where Adale is merely incompetent, the twins are cruel. As well as a growing affection for Esofi, Adale starts competing for her hand and trying to learn how to rule a kingdom in earnest. But complicating matters even further are the increasingly brazen dragon attacks on the countryside and Talcia's apparent disfavor that's left Ieflaria with far too few mages to fight them off. Add in a rogue goddess roaming the streets and a high-stakes battle, where Esofi takes on an army of dragons while dressed in a ball gown, armed with a magic sword and the stakes just keep ramping up as the book races towards its conclusion.
While a fun read with a lot of complex and interesting world-building, The Queen of Ieflaria is far from perfect. Some of Calvin's ideas are executed clumsily, such as the initial introduction to the presence of non-binary people in Ieflarian society. While multiple non-binary characters, as well as an appropriately timed and well-integrated explanation of magically aided binary transition, do appear later in the novel, their first mention is so clunky I assumed it would be the only one — put in there for the sole purpose of ensuring the reader understood this wasn't a trans exclusive world. An important purpose, but one that can and should be handled with more skill by the author. Her approach to gender and gender roles is also a little haphazard, with the balance between the world's apparent gender equality and the presence of social norms and gendered tasks that conform to Western European history coming out incongruous and a little dissonant rather than forming a coherent whole.
The timeline is also far too rapid. Adale and Esofi's romance is sweet and honestly everything you would want from a classic reluctant heir/competent princess romance, except that it happens in the space of a fortnight. It's easy to lose track of how much time has actually passed because the development of their relationship otherwise makes sense, but two weeks is nowhere near long enough to move from entirely opposed to powerfully besotted, especially given the host of misunderstandings they had to overcome first.
Despite this, there are some things Calvin does exceptionally well and handles with the level of sensitivity you would not expect from a classic sword and sorcery novel, even one with a queer twist. Something revealed slowly through the book is how unhealthy Esofi's family dynamics actually are. The mother she's in awe of and the cousin she depends on as chief of her ladies in waiting are both vicious emotional abusers, prone to rage-filled outbursts and constant attacks on her self-esteem. Esofi's slightly distorted sense of self, thanks to their behavior, as well as her desperation for someone, almost anyone, to love her, helps shape key moments in the narrative.
Adale too, though possessed of well-meaning parents, is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up with or late-diagnosed learning disabilities. Though her cognitive issues are never labeled by Calvin, she reads very much as someone with ADHD and possibly other issues as well, who was literally unable to focus and do the tasks required of her as a student. Unaware of neurodiversity, her tutors and parents responded to her failures with shame and disapproval, leaving her with near-crippling anxiety and the conviction that she is, fundamentally, a useless person. Unintentional emotional abuse, but emotional abuse all the same, with an impact on her character that feels authentic and helps contribute to the interpersonal disaster she and Esofi barely averted. growing confidence over the course of the book as she discovers there are things she can do, useful things, is also a delight to read.
Add onto that the often cinematic descriptions of fight scenes, parties, and royal escapades, the glorious high fashion of Esofi and her ladies — coupled with her ability to duel men and win while wearing a crinoline — as well as the satisfying ending, and The Queen of Ieflaria makes a perfect beach read for the summer.