Friday, November 18, 2022

Microreview [book]: Scorpica by G.R. McAllister

A story of the women in a set of connected queendoms, and the looming threat that will upend their status quo


Posterity. From the Middle English posterite, from Anglo-French pusterité, from Latin posteritat-, posteritas, from posterus: coming after.

Humans are a species that can think in terms of years, decades and generations ahead and to come. Humans are a species that is very concerned with their posterity, as a way of preserving not only their legacy, but establishing the future for their children and their children’s children. And when that posterity is threatened, people, and the societies they inhabit, can come under stress, fracture, and break.

P D James’ novel The Children of Men (and its movie adaptation) explores the death of posterity for the human race by having had no children born in the last 17 years. Mankind is slowly and inexorably aging out to death, and the stresses on people, on society are like an inexorably tightening vise, a ticking clock for humanity. It’s not pretty, even (and perhaps especially) when there is a glimmer of hope that the doom can be averted.

We come to GR McAllister’s Scorpica, which takes a widescreen epic fantasy approach to this scenario. The Five Queendoms (which is also the name of the series that Scorpica starts) are a quintet of fantasy kingdoms which are not just matriarchies, kingdoms ruled by women, but out and out gynarchies. This is a woman’s world, from the fierce fighters of Scorpica to the potent magicians of Arca, the power, authority and social structures are all controlled by women.

So, when the Drought of Girls begins, and girls are no longer being born among any of the five kingdoms, there is indeed a slow moving, inexorably building crisis that strikes the inhabitants of the kingdoms, and the lives of those whom we meet in the book. There is an interesting shade that the Queens give to the problem of the Drought of Girls, and it is this. They all recognize that with no more girls being born, the gynarchial structures that hold up society are under threat. In Scorpica, only women are warriors. No more girls being born means, necessarily, that their military pool is going to shrink. In Arca, it will shrink the number of practitioners of magic, especially the rare and important all-magic types, the only ones eligible to be Queen themselves.

But what they don’t recognize is that the Drought of Girls is just a slightly slower moving version of the aforementioned P D James novel. If only men are being born, eventually, once all the women are aged past childbearing age, the entire future of the human race, women and men alike, is threatened. I think the author is making a point here that any social structure, any hierarchy, no matter who is running it, is going to be first and foremost concerned with the threat to their own power and authority, with larger issues and concerns not even a thought in their minds.

I mentioned that this is a widescreen historical epic approach to the story, and the author plunges into that format and mode enthusiastically. The narrative of this novel takes place over years of time and across a wide swath of the Queendoms, paying attention to dates and locations of scenes is crucial. The map is helpful and useful; however, a timeline at the end of the book would have also been helpful to help align when things happen, to be honest, because of the hopping between POVs and points in time and space. Since the author is telling about the decline and threat to Queendoms, it makes sense that we wind up with a sometimes episodic narrative as a result, as the Drought continues on, and we see characters come to terms, or not, with not only the Drought but the day to day business of living.

Given this wide frame, in terms of space and time, the novel does swell and rise, draw into a scene and moment, and draw out again, as society continues to slowly and inexorably feel the strain of the Drought of Girls. As of the time of the writing of this piece, a recent study has shown the Western United States is suffering the worst physical drought in the last 1200 years. This is a long term slow moving catastrophe that is going to affect lives on a small and macro scale alike, and already is doing so. The author’s use of the word drought is a deliberate one, and it is a good one.

But that widescreen nature means that there are many stories here, and many of them are not going to end happily over the course of the novel. Characters who we’ve been consistently coming back to again and again, over years in the narrative, can and do come to quick and often violent ends.

It is a rich and diverse world, though, and rich and diverse characters through a span of time. We get points of view from a couple of Queens, both current and future, as well as bandits, healers and also the ultimate antagonist of the piece as well, Several of them are mothers, which is not surprising in a gynarchy work with mainly female characters but is still welcome all the same, and it fits in with that hitherto mentioned theme of posterity.

While the widescreen epic feel can mean that some characters, though, for all this long book get short shrift, and sometimes it feels like a Grand Tour of the Five Queendoms, it is a world and characters that I was fascinated with. There is good queer representation in this world as well. It should be noted that McAllister does a critique of the gender balance of a lot of fantasy over the years (and too much even *today*) of having nearly all male characters and few women, by having only a scattering of male characters (and no POVs whatsoever)

The other metaphor that comes to mind with how McAllister works this novel and what its final form is that of a bonsai. Dwarfed, restricted, pruned and ruthlessly shaped, the Five Queendoms, its Queens and rulers by the end of it (which, you will not be surprised are not the same ones who start the narrative) have been put through an experience that, in the end, looks like it might be just the first act in a even larger story. What that story is...I think I have an idea, but the story of the Five Queendoms is only just beginning, here. The novel ends on the point of a blade, not really any offramp now that momentum really has been achieved for the historical narrative.

I am left to wonder as a reader if the subsequent volumes will go for a more time-constricted narrative, having set the stage for one by the events at the end of this book, or can and will the author continue this big screen, time and space wise style of story and tell it over years and great distances. The model for the latter that comes to mind, and only because of the scale and ambition rather than theme or plot, is Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings series. I am intensely curious to see if McAllister can match Liu’s ambitions. She certainly has made a start of it. here.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a strong and interesting world built from the ground up as a gynarchy and exploring what happens when that world is put under stress.

+1 for daring to go full widescreen epic in terms of time as well as space.

Penalties: -1 The lack of an offramp and the slowness of building up to the climax of the book may turn off readers.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: McAllister, G.R. Scorpica [Saga Press, 2022]