The Women’s War by Jenna Glass (book review).

May 16, 2020 | By | Reply More

‘The Women’s War’ by Jenna Glass contains multiple references to violence and sexual violence that some readers may find triggering.

The Abbey of the Unwanted is full of women no one wants as wives. The disobedient. The troublemakers. The ones who inconvenienced fathers or husbands. Those cast aside in divorce. All are sent to the Abbey, where they work the lowest of magics, women’s magics, all to create love potions and health potions and other luxuries. Where their bodies are on sale to the highest bidder so they can earn enough for them all to survive another day.

Once Alysoon was a princess and her mother a queen but, when her father needed an alliance more than his marriage, everything changed. Alysoon was suddenly illegitimate, though still useful as a daughter of the king. Her mother, though, was sent to the Abbey of the Unwanted and suffered being bought by men who wanted to have the woman who was once a queen. Alysoon visits her mother every week, despite the scandal, until the day her mother, now an Abbess, gives her an enigmatic warning.

The Abbess of the Unwanted has a plan. A plan that has been the secret focus of abbesses all over the world for centuries. A plan that will change the fate of women everywhere and, through them, the world. Just one small change. But small changes can be a catalyst. They will change magic itself. They will change the world.

What drew me into this book was the magic system. By opening your inner eye, motes appear. Combine these motes and you can create winged messengers, a tireless mount and protective shields. Magical power is determined by how many types of mote you can perceive as that allows you to use a greater number of combinations. Perception of the motes is divided across gender lines and so the motes themselves are divided into male, neuter and female types. Anyone can open their inner eye and perceive these motes. More powerful men might perceive some of the female motes, not that they would descend to using them. Women’s magic, however, is so highly constrained that it scandalous for respectable females to even open their inner eye. The only females that make magic openly are the fallen women of the Abbeys.

What I don’t understand is why more women don’t use magic? It’s very clear that they can use it and that there are magical elements that are only visible to women. It seems unlikely that only fallen women would use magic. There are references to some women using magic when no men were available and they couldn’t be seen, but they are a minor exception. It seems remarkable that women would not use an innate skill in some fashion or other more regularly. To heat bath water or cure a headache if nothing else.

The novel follows several characters but the two main stories are from former Princess Alysoon and current Princess Ellinsoltah. Alysoon’s focus is almost entirely on her own family, with several side trips to help the poor to prove to the reader she is not a self-centred noble. Ellinsoltah is thrust into a position of power and constantly surrounded by men except for a single maid. Both characters have compelling stories and motivations, but they also highlight a lack of feminine connection in the society outside of the family. I’m not asking for a show of feminine sisterhood but it seems unlikely that women would so completely buckle down under the oppression of men without any form of passive resistance or mutual aid. Until the Abbess’ plan comes to fruition it appears that the all women are resigned to grin and bear it and maybe think of England.

This acceptance of how the world is not confined to the women. Several minor point of view characters are male and show men to either be ‘evil rapists’ or examples of ‘not all men.’ While these examples of ‘not all men’ do uphold basic standards of not raping or abusing those women in their care but are not shown to do anything to mitigate these tendencies in others.

Inevitably, this book will be compared to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’. What makes this version of overthrowing the patriarchy particularly engaging is its setting of a more traditional fantasy world with its swords and sorcery, princesses and princes. The world is broad and well thought out. The cast of characters all have believable and mostly relatable motivations. It would have been nice to have a broader spectrum of society represented. The main voices are from the ruling class or leaders from the Abbey. Perhaps women from other sections of society work within their roles to lead fuller lives. I look forward to reading the sequel to find out.

LK Richardson

May 2020

(pub: Del Ray/Random House, 2019. 560 page hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), £21.70 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-98481-720-4)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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