Book Review: The Women’s War

26 Jun

The Women’s War

-Jenna Glass

The spell they were set to cast tonight had been generations in the making, built by a succession of gifted abbesses who’d seen what no one else had seen—­and who’d had the courage to act on it. It was well known that magical aptitude ran in certain families. In the Abbeys, it was similarly well known that the rarer feminine gift of foresight also ran in families, though only women who inherited that gift from both sides of their families could use it. And so the abbesses of Aaltah had set about manipulating bloodlines based on what they saw, strengthening and concentrating the abilities they needed. A love potion slipped into a client’s drink. A contraceptive potion withheld. A marriage falsely predicted to be unfruitful when the bloodlines were analyzed . . . ​The fate of the world rested on these small acts of feminine defiance.

Brynna Rah-­Malrye had completed the process by bearing Nadeen and breeding her with that repulsive Nandel princeling to produce Vondeen. Generations had labored to produce these three women—­the virgin, the mother, and the crone—­who were the only ones who could complete this epic spell.

There was no turning back, no matter how high the cost or how much it hurt.

By a rather curious coincidence, shortly before I cracked open The Women’s War I read a biography of King Richard II, who – while hardly the worst person to park his rump on England’s throne – was a mess of insecurity and paranoia that led him to make an endless series of unforced errors that eventually resulted in his cousin invading the country, then overthrowing and murdering Richard before taking the crown as Henry IV.  It is hard not to look at Richard’s career and think he must have been driven by his own personal demons, because many of his decisions were practically suicidal.  Given his early life, it would be odd indeed if the adult was not shaped by the experiences of the child, but – when that adult sat upon a throne – his shortcomings became incredibly dangerous. Richard was nowhere near as unpleasant as Delnamal, the main antagonist of The Women’s War, yet I cannot help wondering if he was the major inspiration.  If there was a wrong decision to be made, Richard (and Delnamal) made it.

The Women’s War is set in a fantasy world that clearly draws inspiration from medieval Europe (with some major differences, which will be discussed below.)  Magic is a constant presence, with magical elements that are male-only, female-only and both-genders.  Female magic is regarded as lesser and largely forbidden, outside the Abbeys of the Unwanted; women, in short, are regarded as little more than chattel, treated as property by their male guardians.  A woman can be sent to the Abbeys on a whim, where she will be pushed into de facto prostitution.  Marriages are arranged, at least amongst the nobility, for political reasons; a wife who fails to give her husband a (male) heir runs the risk of being discarded at any moment.  It is, in short, a no woman’s land.

Everything changes when a handful of women, led by the Abbess of the local Abbey, enact a ritual to tamper with the source of magic itself.  All of a sudden, women have access to far more – and different – magics, starting with a shift in reality that allows a woman to automatically terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  As the social and political implications start to sink in, and chaos spreads around the known world, the monarchy sends the surviving women into exile …only to discover, too late, that the exiles have stumbled into a wellspring of new magic, open largely (if not only) to women.  They eventually turn it into a de facto kingdom of their own, posing a threat to the established order that may trump everything the kingdoms have yet seen.

The story is centred on three different characters.  Alysoon Rai-Brynna, daughter of the king (her mother was put aside and sent to the Abbey, allowing her father to marry again), finds herself wrestling with the changed magic and trying to save her own daughters from the wrath of their uncle; Princess Ellinsoltah of a different kingdom finds herself unexpectedly on the throne when everyone above her dies in an accident, then caught in plots hatched by older and more cunning (and masculine) advisors; Delnamal, half-brother to Alysoon, starts to plunge into madness as he loses his unborn child, his hated wife starts plotting against him, his father dies, leaving him on the throne.  The three characters, and a handful of relatively minor ones, interact repeatedly, each clash triggering off the next stage of the plot. 

Alysoon is something of an atypical character, being a widow and mother in her late forties when the world changes.  She is curiously naive as a character, unable to anticipate that her mother would have told the world what she’d done (which was obvious, as otherwise the truth might not be realised until it was too late); she is reluctant to step into the light as the eventual de facto leader of the new community; she is, perhaps worst of all, unable to see the person under her prim and proper daughter until it is too late.  Ellinsoltah is a little more conventional, slowly growing into her new role; she makes mistakes, some of which come very close to destroying her, but she eventually secures her position.  Delnamal is perhaps the most conventional of the three, and a type we’ve seen before in many earlier works, yet he’s not entirely without reason.  Jenna Glass does not make excuses for him, and rightly so, but she does help us to understand him.  A person who is dealing with a colossal personal crisis, even one brought on by his own failings, is not going to respond well to hectoring from outsiders.

The Women’s War is not blind to the problems caused by the sudden change in the world, although – as all three major characters are royalty – it is hard to see what, if any, effects the crisis has on the commoners.  The sudden loss of a number of unborn children is obviously disastrous, as is the realisation altar diplomatic will have to be radically altered.  As more and more newer magic spells start to make their emergence, including spells designed to render someone important or even kill them outright, the world continues to change.  Spells designed to prevent pregnancy can and do liberate women, allowing them to have sex outside wedlock, but this isn’t a cure-all.  Ellinsoltah discovers, very quickly, that she has traded one problem for another when she consummates her relationship with her lover and this, eventually, nearly unseats her. 

It also allows women – and men – to continue research into magic, assessing how the change worked, what the shift allows people to do now, and – for some – trying to figure out a way to reverse the change.  This is one of the more interesting parts of the book, although it does raise the question of precisely why no one thought to investigate female magic more closelybeforehand.  The power to heal is also the power to kill and the implications should have been obvious. 

The book does, however, have its weaknesses.  On a small scale, Alysoon’s daughter seems to jump around a lot in the last few chapters, resulting in a shock ending that feels more than a little contrived.  Delnamal’s development as a character also jumps around a lot, leaving him veering between trying to come to grips with the crisis, then trying to tackle his insecurities, then finally jumping right off the slippery slope.  At times, Delnamal comes across as an indecisive actor, at one point convincing himself that horrific things have to be done and, at others, regretting them the instant it is too late to deal with them.

On a larger scale, the treatment of women and firstborn heirs is largely allohistorical; it wasn’t uncommon for unwanted royal and aristocratic women to be sent to convents, just to keep them out of the way, but they were hardly turned into prostitutes.  Nor was it something done on a whim.  A king who disowned his foreign-born wife because he wanted a son, as Henry VIII did, would have found it harder to find a suitable replacement as the new wife’s family would suspect the relationship wouldn’t last long enough to put their child on the throne.  A firstborn heir would be almost impossible to put aside, as it would call into question the very basis of the monarchy.  (Note that Jane Seymour, mother of Edward VI, died shortly after childbirth; she wasn’t discarded by her husband.)  Delnamal’s father would be unlikely to put his firstborn aside in Delnamal’s favour, even before Delnamal’s character flaws became apparent.  The former heir would become a civil war waiting to happen. 

(This, for example, is probably why Elsa and Anna’s parents didn’t quietly take Elsa out of the line of succession, even though it might have been the best possible thing to do.)

The Women’s War has been called ‘fantasy for the #METOO era.’  This is something of an exaggeration.  It is set in a world that is very different from our current era and still quite different to anything that existed in the past.  It presents issues that are  not entirely contingent with ours.  It avoids some issues that need to be assessed and raises issues that work in the book’s context, but don’t work outside it.  And, in places, the author stacks the deck.  The heroines have a powerful male ally, in Alysoon’s older brother, but if things had been different – for him – he might be on the other side.

The book is not like The Power or Farnham’s Freehold, where modern society is flipped upside down, nor set ten or so years after the change like The Philosopher’s Flight.  It has less to teach and illustrate for us than more contemporary books.  But, as a story set in a changing world, it works fairly well.

You can download a free sample from the author’s website here.  However, outside the US, the book is only available in hardback or paperback.

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Women’s War”

  1. George Phillies June 27, 2021 at 5:26 am #

    A fine review

  2. Kris S July 2, 2021 at 7:45 pm #

    I read this back in 2020. 👍👍

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