This is the story of an Empire, communities and a woman. Told by the leading character, Lena, this is an epic fantasy which is also truthful to the emotions of individual’s facing challenges both similar and different to reality. Lena, her mother, sister, aunt and others all live in a village of women and girls of all ages, and boys under seven. Men are only permitted to enter the village and be with the women and sometimes their children at certain festival times. Otherwise they are soldiers, boys and men, guarding the edges of the Empire.
The coastal village of Tivan is a self supporting community, with fishing, farming and hunting all undertaken by women and girls. The midwife is kept busy as women can become pregnant at Festival times, and the whole community assists with bringing up the children. Lena is seventeen, just finished her apprenticeship in sea fishing, and shares a boat and her life with her partner, Maya. The village is run by a democratic council of all the women, with three leaders. All is peaceful in a village and an Empire wide system that has run for ten generations. Sometimes Lena wants adventure, going further in her boat, but mainly she is satisfied with life, content in the known and traditional. This book so cleverly sets up the situation and details of the village and its inhabitants that it becomes a historical novel, complex yet understandable, solid and completely engaging. I recommend this book as an excellent read for fans of historical fiction and those who enjoy an element of fantasy.
The real importance of this book is the demonstration that women can not only run a peaceful society, but also rise to a time of unprecedented crisis. After an establishing of the relationships and order with which life runs in Tivan, which details how everything is expected and calmly dealt with by the women, a new person in the village creates excitement and discussion. There are suggestions of a sort of Roman society with communal baths, an Empire of long standing, and a carefully organised society with a huge military element. The technology is also of the Roman era, with sail powered boats, scythes for harvest and crucially knives, archery and other hand weapons for battle. When danger threatens, the best way of proceeding is debated, and it is Maya’s decision to go into exile from the village which affects Lena’s life so profoundly. The training for warfare is exhaustively and well described, revealing extensive and detailed research. The various attitudes, abilities and challenges faced by the individuals in the story really come alive, and surprises and revelations among the detailed progress of close battle really involve the reader.
I really enjoyed this book, and the character of Lena really comes alive through her mixed emotions and feelings. Her impetus to seek out Maya propels much of the book, as well as her loyalty to her village, family and friends. The other characters she encounters, such as Casyn, make her question the way things have been, and whether they have to as she discovers the Empire outside Tivan. The relationships between men and women, characterised by Casyn as “We live apart and die apart”, is at the centre of the novel, as well as the underestimation of women as fighters shown by some men. This examination of an alternative way of life made me, and I suspect others, reflect on the expectations of our society, and in particular relationships between women and the genders. The list of characters is a bit overwhelming in the start of the book, and I wonder if it is too detailed. That is a minor quibble with a book I found memorable and enthralling. I have been so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this novel, and would love to read the subsequent books mentioned in the start of Marion’s saga.