Monday, December 11, 2017

Companion Piece

I wrote a long and thoughtful review of Naondel earlier this week, before I'd finished it, and for some reason it disappeared when I thought I'd posted it. This review will be much inferior, I am sure; the old one was poetry.

But I did just finish Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff's sequel to Maresi, which I read earlier this year and loved so much that I don't know if I can explain it. Maresi was about the power of community, and women caring for each other, and the potential strength of just standing up for what is good and right.  It's almost domestic fantasy, with a lot of the story being devoted to what it's like to live on the island of Menos, where men are not allowed, and where women from all over the world come to learn, or to escape, or to live in safety.

Going into Naondel, I knew it was the story of the founding of the Red Abbey. The experience of reading it was not what I expected, though.  I guess you could consider this spoilers, though it's more like what the back of the book should have said; the fact that I was surprised by most of what the book contained actually probably hurt my enjoyment of it. It was a strong book, but not a good surprise.

The seven founding women of the Red Abbey each tell the story of how they came to be a part of this group, how their life took them to this point.  The actual point of joining together to go to a new place and create a new home is the conclusion, practically the epilogue. The contents of the book are basically the brutal ways the world treated each woman before this. And not just the world, but one man.

We start with Kabira; she is the young daughter of a wealthy family. She falls for a handsome vizier's son, who is maybe courting her and maybe courting her sister. She shares the secret of her family's magic spring with him.  It is in no way surprising that he turns out to be a power-hungry jerk and uses the spring to steal political and financial power. Bad things happen, Kabira (not incorrectly, but incompletely) blames herself. "And then forty years went by."

That line killed me.  Wait, forty years? When do we get to the girl power?

It's a long time. We meet each of the women as they come together in the palace from different places, with different knowledge and magic and skills.  We spend years with them as they are oppressed, beaten, raped, trapped.

This is not to say there's no beauty here. The strength of the imprisoned is actually one of the greatest lessons here; you don't have to escape your prison to be free in your heart, to own your own soul.  It's not just those who break out of jail who are triumphant over their captors or live a complete life.

But the long brutality of the story is not entirely what I expected, and not as glorious as I had hoped.  It's a powerful story, but powerful with sorrow and pain.  It's got so much truth in it, but the claustrophobia of the palace isn't always pleasant.  The introduction of so many characters is actually a skillful way of dealing with this problem--each one introduces us to a new culture and environment and cast, even if they only last a little while. They are a breather in between the breathless boredom of the House of Women.

I do recommend this book, for its beauty and for the important parts of the story of oppression and freedom that it tells.  But I think that enjoyment of it depends on knowing that the feel-good warmth of Maresi is not what you should anticipate.

If anyone reads this book, though, I would love to talk about Kabira.  I think she's a fascinating character, moreso for her long, deep, dangerous flaws.  I would like to know what you think of what kind of leader the First Mother must have been.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance review copy of this book.

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