Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Non-Comic Post: So THAT was that book!!!

Every so often I find myself trying to hunt down dimly remembered books from my childhood/adolescence. This time I actually found it. (It helps that this time I remembered some of the lead characters' names. And I mostly only remembered them because "Boniface" is a papal name...)

Anyway, the book this time was the Element of Fire, by Martha Wells. I remember liking it because the characters were awesome and the gender roles were interestingly reversed theme-wise.

Reverse gender-roles in books are interesting to me when done "right". For example, I never could quite get into the mass male-oppressive matriarchy in Melanie Rawn's mageborn series, because the metaphor was too in depth. Women owned property, men had little to no social status except for their value to women, aristocratic men were often sheltered possessions, they were also only to be seen in public with identity cards and their heads covered...

It was an interesting idea, but a bit too closely mirroring traditional domination of women for me. Not that this isn't interesting to explore, but I can't quite get my head around it, because most of the restrictions on women had rationales that while crap, don't really apply the other way around. Even with the backstory of it being colonists on another planet, yadda, yadda.

Men having to cover their hair for fear of "enticing women into depravity" (whores went around uncovered sometimes) doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you consider that in Ms. Rawn's book, the men and women are described similarly enough to men and women of our world/time. On average, most men are physically stronger than most women. This isn't to say that a woman can't rape/overpower a man, but in general, it's quite a bit less common. The idea that the phenomenon is so widespread as to be a justification for the additional apparel is frankly a bit hard for me to swallow.

Many of the social structures parallel Earth pseudo-medieval structures without taking into account the factors that childbirth plays into it. Men do not give birth, thus the rationale for the structures, flawed as it is, is gone. The structures simply make no sense.

This is not to say that a female-dominated society can't be portrayed believably, but the structures should not be exactly the same as the male-dominated society we know. The exact mirror is lazy, sacrificing believability for familiarity.

Anyway, Wells's book doesn't involve anything resembling that complex worldbuilding found in Rawn. In fact, it's pseudo-medieval setting seems to bear most of the patriarchal trappings expected. But it's in the narrative roles that the genders are switched.

There is a very strong ruler, aging, with a weak, passive heir to inherit. However, the heir's illegitimate half-sibling, who is also very strong-willed and formidable ends up coming in to save the day.

There is also a "competent concubine" sort of character ( Lady Jessica from Dune), who has obtained power in the ruler's bed (and is much younger) and ultimately ends up with the strong-willed half-sibling.

The trick of course, is that the strong ruler is a woman. The Dowager Queen Ravenna. While her weak and passive son Roland is King in name, she is the one that exerts strong, guiding rulership over the land.

The bastard offspring is a woman, "Kade Carrion", who begins on the outskirts of court society, a snarky rebel, but ends up instrumental in the battle against the bad guy. She's also half fae. Which means she has neat powers.

The competent concubine is a man, of course. He's a skilled fighter, smart and charming, the captain of the Queen's guards. But the majority of his power and identity within the story is based on the fact that he is sleeping with the Dowager Queen. (There's a point when dealing with the Fae that his partnership with Kade Carrion is used the same way...he is continually defined by his female companion)

It's particularly interesting because for years I never really noticed how each of the principle characters' roles ended up defying gender convention. They just managed it in a way that didn't run counter to the plot or setting.

And ultimately I liked it because the characters were interesting and fun. Even the weak King ended up growing up a little and becoming decidedly sympathetic.

And then there's the best exchange in the book EVER:

"Don't take me for a fool, Captain."

"I don't know what else to take you for."

"You can take me for a man who did not acquire my power in a Queen's bed."

"Yes," Thomas agreed. "In her bed, on the daybed in the anteroom, on a couch in the west solar of the Summer Palace, and other locations too numerous to mention, and if you had the slightest understanding of Ravenna at all, you would know that it never made one damn bit of difference as to whether she took my advice or not."

Ten years or so after the fact, that was the quote that popped into my head and got me to hunt down the book again. Now all I need is to go back to my parents' house and dig the damn book out. :-) I can hardly wait!


  • At February 03, 2007 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A good take on a female dominated society that isn't just based on flipping patriarchy is in CJ Cherryh's Chanur series.

  • At February 03, 2007 10:20 PM, Blogger Will Staples said…

    The only female-dominated society I can think of off the top of my head (I really need to read more prose) is the dark elves from D&D. Though they're probably not a good example 'cause they're pretty much all evil rotters, woman and man alike. At least it's not just an inversion of patriarchy, as they have unique circumstances.

  • At February 04, 2007 1:34 PM, Blogger clmcshane said…

    Another good take on a female-dominated society is "A Brother's Price" by Wen Spencer.
    It's a world where one man is born to every 15-20 women and sisters.

  • At February 04, 2007 11:07 PM, Blogger Matthew E said…

    Martha Wells is great, possibly the most underrated fantasy writer working today, and Kade Carrion is one of the few fictional characters I could ever see myself having a crush on. Have you read any of Wells's other stuff? She's got four more books set in (centuries-later) Ile-Rien, among others.


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