Honestly what have we done to deserve E.K. Johnston? She is a blessing upon this earth. The first of her books that I read was Ahsoka, and it was so exhilarating for me every time I hit on another example of her commitment to gender neutrality. She goes even further in this book: Any time a person is not explicitly named as a man upon their first mention, you can fully expect them to be a woman. In fact, while reading this book, you can fully expect your male-default assumptions (the ones you were raised to have; there's no shame in it) to be challenged constantly. And E.K.'s commitment to diversity and representation doesn't end there! This book also includes the following: a discussion of different hair types (re: race) and the different needs they have; a character's asexuality being accepted AND defended, with an incident in which magic is used to create sexual desire in the character being seen by others as an extreme violation; a character musing on the fact that discovering that another character is trans doesn't change her perception of the second character at all; further wonderful treatment of that trans character; a character wanting to make an effort to pronounce another character's name correctly even though she doesn't have the right accent; a discussion of head scarves and why someone would continue to wear a culturally significant piece of clothing even though others judge them for it; cultural appropriation being frowned upon; a number of conversations addressing class privilege; people not being comfortable with reciprocating certain sexual acts and that being perfectly okay; AND MORE.
Also: a whole team of diverse, badass women of different ages being amazingly supportive of each other all the time; a sassy wizard, who happens to be the only male character with more than two brief scenes of dialogue*; and two girls who love each other a whole lot.
This book is just so delightful, and such a joy. I'll admit that I didn't love the flashback system—it felt less like the flashbacks were supporting the main story and more like there were two stories happening, with one (the flashbacks) getting overwhelmed by the other. Personally, I would've loved to have seen the stories as two separate books in a duology, as I think the flashback story would've been just as compelling as the "afterward" story, and both of them could've gotten a little more attention that way. Also, as much as I loved Olsa, I didn't really connect with her as much as I wanted to—but I connected with Kalanthe a LOT, and I really, really loved her storyline. I also loved all the other knights, and would buy books about their solo adventures and younger days in a heartbeat.
Anyway, I highly recommend this treasure of a book. And I can't wait to read whatever E.K. has in store for us next.
*If there's a Bechdel test for male representation, this book does not pass it.