Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Melissa Crandall's Weathercock

Weathercock by Melissa Crandall
Tortuga Loca, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Melissa Crandall, whose short story collection Darling Wendy was reviewed for our debut issue, sent me a copy of her first non-series novel, Weathercock, a fantasy set in an alternative-reality medieval world where gender roles are directly inverse to traditional gender roles in the majority of known human societies.  In other words, men's lot in life was rather bitter.

I admit I'm not very familiar with the fantasy genre, so I asked for some feedback from my partner on this, and it was interesting to get a male perspective on the story.  He found the female characters easier to relate to than the male ones, simply because men in the world of this novel are so unlike the typical picture of a man in our society, while women in the novel's world do resemble men as we know them, exhibiting both what are perceived as positive as well as negative typically masculine traits.  It seems the reversal in behavior stems from the respective genders' stations and the effects of those roles over generations, through a feedback loop of heredity and environment

For reasons unknown to the lead characters, men were born more rarely in this society, and they were often sterile.  "It was just the way things were in Duine, the way things had always been." 

The result of this scarcity is for men to be treated like commodities, essentially as breeding studs.  Women set up "households," which are comprised of several wives, one of whom actually "owns" the husband and therefore wields most of the power, and others who exist lower in the hierarchy and have less say in household decisions.

Kinner, the lead male character, son of the "Firstwife" of a household, finds his future in jeopardy when it's discovered that he is apparently sterile and therefore cannot contribute to the household in the manner expected of him.  The only alternative to execution for a sterile male is monkhood, and so Kinner's mother undertakes with him a long journey across the country to a monastery where he can live safely among other men in his predicament
although we later learn that Kinner's mother, Holan, who is a blacksmith, has misled the other wives about her son's sterility because she wanted a pretext to travel with him to this distant place of refuge as part of her quest in relation to a special sword she has forged in honor of a god, the Weathercock, whose worship is forbidden in a society that instead worships a triune goddess.

The inverted parallels to medieval European Christendom are obvious, but the questions this allegorical adventure tale raises are provocative and compelling.

Has our own society, even today, afforded equal worth to half its members even if they do not assume traditional procreative roles?

And, political measures like affirmative action aside, what would women today be achieving in non-female-dominated professions if they had not been treated as second-class citizens since time immemorial?

Kinner, raised to be docile and not trained in battle because he is a man, does not emerge as a hero in the war between the corrupt queen and her discontented subjects that provides much of the action in the novel.  (Many of the subjects are miffed that the queen keeps stealing their husbands in pursuit of an heir.)  In this way, the story is realistic, unlike anachronistic Hollywood films that cast every other ancient or medieval heroine as a Boudica, rather than portraying them within the context of their time, where courage did not necessarily manifest itself in dazzling swordplay.

And political feminism didn't win all of its early battles, either, but the closing of Crandall's tale allows for hope that change is in the air for men like Kinner, not from martial victories but from mutual understanding between the genders one person at a time, which is how all true and lasting peace and progress tends to be won.

I admire the author for tackling this territory and think she has written an original, idea-driven adventure story worth checking out.

The book is available directly from the author, as well as in ebook form here.