The Women's War by Jenna Glass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is a bit hard to review, because it did a lot of things well, but overall it didn't seem to live up to its excellent premise. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I will be seeking out the rest of the trilogy.
First and foremost, the worldbuilding. The magic system here is well-thought-out and fascinating. Does the idea of "masculine, feminine and neutral" elements of magic remind you of the Periodic Table of Elements? It certainly did me. This magic was not easy or simple--it required serious study and experimentation, and it could easily backfire. It wasn't something the characters could just wave their hands (or their wands) and summon up. Practitioners had to write exacting formulas and cast their spells in a meticulous order to get the results they wanted. It had limits, and it could be (and often was) dangerous. This book is fantasy, but the magic had a bit of a science-y sheen on it you don't often see, and it made this part of the story stand out.
The characters (for the most part). We have multiple viewpoints here, with the focus on women, as could be surmised by the title. The one male POV character, the villain Crown Prince Delnamal, seemed to be there just for the purpose of being a whiny, entitled ass who unfortunately came into power when he really shouldn't have and proceeded to take revenge on anybody who ever told him "no." He wasn't a particularly good antagonist, shall we say. The other POV characters, particularly poor doomed Jinnell, were far better written.
The pacing: Others have said this book seemed slow. I didn't think so, because I could see the plot slowly winding tighter and tighter, like a well-oiled spring, until it finally broke. When it did (see: Chapter 43 and Queen Ellinsoltah's elimination of her rival) the action was quick and brutal. As was the ending.
The concept, with its feminist messages. I almost hesitate to say this, because so much of this book is about women fighting to reclaim their power, and exploring their (partial) release from oppression. The method by which this was accomplished--a spell that basically turned the women of the Seven Well's fertility switch to "off," setting it so women would not get pregnant unless they themselves desired a child, and certainly not in response to male demands or coercion--has an interesting counterpart to our own world's sexual revolution triggered by the invention of hormonal contraception. This medieval world's oppression is far more severe than our own, and high-born women are not going out into the workforce any time soon.
However, what was glaringly lacking, and has been pointed out by other reviewers, is the complete absence of any sort of representation. To be blunt, all of the female characters seem to be white, and there are no gay or trans women to be found. This is particularly notable in the Abbey, where the highborn daughters who don't produce heirs or rebel against their fathers or husbands are cast off (and forced to work as prostitutes). Are we to think that the women confined to the Abbey wouldn't start pairing off, and also that they wouldn't be mad as hell and refusing to take it anymore? Come now. This gives the story a very incomplete, superficial feel, and casts the characters as unrealistically beaten-down and submissive. I finished the book in spite of this, but I can see where this might be a turn-off for many readers.
It seems like the author put so much thought into her magic system that she didn't bother to work out her world's social and political system, especially in the wake of her world-altering event. This may change in the next book, of course, but this one has left enough of a sour taste in my mouth that I don't think I'll be picking it up.
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