The women of The Women’s War, a new epic fantasy by Jenna Glass, are filled with quiet rage.
Their fury is that of the dispossessed, the abandoned, the second-class citizens whose lives and autonomy are at the disposal of a patriarchal society. Three of them—a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter—are so filled with righteous anger that they unleash a long-gestating spell that gives every woman in the world control over her body. No women will ever be forced or able to bear a child she does not want.
One by one, the women’s grips faltered, dizziness overtaking them as the strength drained from their bodies with their blood. And the spell they had completed rose up from the pool of molten metal and cracked gems and sank into the earth, making its way down to the Wellspring, the source of all magic. And changing everything.
That’s the novel’s opening salvo, but it’s by no means the last one. The magical change has numerous unexpected consequences—some good, some horrific—beginning with a tsunami that destroys the lower levels of the city, and ending with the family of the main character, Alysoon, in peril.
Many fantasy novels begin years, if not centuries, after the world has experienced a seismic change. In this story, we are present at the very moment of change, which allows Glass to explore how a society begins to adjust, slowly yet inexorably, to an unstoppable shift. The side effects of the fertility spell unleash other magic, powers Alysoon and others seize as their own in order to survive the social upheaval that results.
Early in my reading, I wondered if Glass was overstating the impact this magically wrought change would have on the women in her society. And then I recalled the lyrics of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” written a decade and a half after the invention of oral contraceptives:
There’s a gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill
This old maternity dress I’ve got
Is goin’ in the garbage
The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on
Won’t take up so much yardage
Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years
Since I’ve got the pill
Alysoon, a princess who was retroactively bastardized when her father needed a politically advantageous divorce, isn’t after hot pants and frills. As a widow, she desperately needs to control her own destiny if she hopes to survive, and to provide for her daughter. That’s not something that will happen easily, not faced with the opposition of her vindictive half-brother, the heir to the throne.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, a princess named Ellin is handed a crown she never anticipated wearing. It only comes to rest on her head after her family is killed in the quake caused by the wide-ranging spell. She’s the compromise candidate in a conflict between two warring factions led by men.
While Alysoon struggles to protect her family, Ellin must bear the burden of keeping a kingdom safe from civil war, jockeying with disloyal counselors and rivals and juggling the attention of two competing suitors—one of who she loves, one of whom seems intriguing, and could seal a political alliance her country desperately needs. But Ellin knows this: though female rulers typically step aside for their sons in her kingdom, she likely won’t.
The stories of Alysoon and Ellin interweave throughout the book. Both of them are given point-of-view chapters, as are Shelvon, Alysoon’s unhappy sister-in-law; Alysoon’s daughter, Jinnell; and various other women around them. Perhaps to showcase Ellin’s isolation, she’s the only point-of-view character in her kingdom.
The prominent male points of view are that of the odious crown prince, Alysoon’s half-brother; and Alysoon’s full brother, a decent man and the former crown prince, before he too was bastardized.
The preceding paragraphs likely make The Women’s War sound like a solely political novel. Of course, the base concept is political, but the result is hardly a screed. It’s a story filled with richly built characters struggling with the aftermath of a decision made by others. It’s ironic that in changing magic to allow women to only give birth to children they want, the makers of the spell also took away from society the mere decision to choose change on its own.
Not that forced change is necessarily a bad. Something certainly needed to change. The Abbess who is driven to unleash the spell oversees a place quite unlike a nunnery. Rather, it is a place where disgraced women are sent, forced to use their talents to create minor spells thought of as “women’s magic,” or to be put up for auction, with their sexual intimacy sold to the highest bidder. All of the revenue goes to the crown, perpetuating a system of servitude and control.
You can see where the rage comes from.
And yet the men in the book are not universally evil villains. The crown prince’s horrific actions are even justified to an extent, though in the end, it is clear he’s likely to double down on tyranny even with those extenuating circumstances removed.
This is an engaging, fast-paced epic fantasy with a fantastic, timely concept and characters to root for (and against). The one fault, perhaps, is that the story ends on a cliffhanger, with the fates of our main characters not firmly settled. I cannot wait for the sequel.
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