Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: The Mother by B. L. Blanchard

A sequel that fails to measure up to the quality of its predecessor

The least interesting type of alternate history is the turning of tables. Novels such as The Mirage by Matt Ruff and Through Darkest Europe by Harry Turtledove are just amusing curiosities, with little substance to chew on. It's one thing to show the possible advancement of populations that in our world have been mistreated and exploited, like author B. L. Blanchard did wonderfully in The Peacekeeper; it's another thing to rain all kinds of misfortune upon the populations that in our world have been privileged, like she does in its sequel The Mother.

Both books are nominally set in the same alternate world, where colonization never happened and Europe never sought to rule the world, but the events of one novel don't connect to the other, which means the sequel can be read on its own. In The Mother, we follow Marie, a desperate housewife fleeing an unhappy marriage in a nightmare version of Britain, where the Enlightenment never happened and every nobleman is a miniature Henry VIII, eager to murder his wife if she fails to produce a son. Europe in general is under the grip of Catholic theocracy (the Holy Roman Empire never dissolved), but the novel singles out Britain as the most extreme case, a Taliban regime on steroids where women have no human rights and purity culture is law.

The novel is not without some merit: there's a notable use of cognitive estrangement in showing us these characters behave with the strictest Victorian prudishness in a world of camera phones. The horrors of absolute patriarchy and rigid class segregation in this setting are magnified by modern surveillance technology that lets husbands track their wives' movements on a tablet. The effect is a curious form of disorientation, as if Jane Eyre had taken a wrong turn through Stepford and crashed into Gilead. And, to the novel's credit, this is not too far from certain alarming #tradwife trends in the real world. However, beyond the shock value of presenting us with a whole continent held in a protofascist iron grip, The Mother doesn't have much in the way of statements of its own to make. We already know patriarchy is bad, and classism is bad, and theocracy is bad. We've already received the news from Iran and Saudi Arabia. We don't need to hear it again.

In terms of speculative content, The Mother is a rehash of every sexist dystopia. In terms of literary achievement, it doesn't rise above misery porn. In terms of structure, its plot is sustained by contrived chance encounters. By the middle of the book, it's become an established pattern: our protagonist is in a desperate situation, all hope seems lost, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a character who can save her enters the scene. Even the climax of the story hinges on this device—four times. Besides this narrative vice, the dialogues sound artificial, at times overly melodramatic and at times transparently expository. When characters lament to each other about the sad state of the world, they often recite lists of factoids that only the reader needs to hear. And the all too frequent flashbacks needlessly spell out the emotional stakes that were already clear from previous scenes, sometimes recounting the exact same events, as if the author didn't trust her first telling of them.

It's hard to believe that The Mother comes from the same author who wrote the immeasurably better The Peacekeeper. However, this drop in quality is less surprising upon revisiting the clich├ęs that populate the ending of The Peacekeeper. If Blanchard intends to continue this series, one must hope she returns to the ignored places where the change in history brought better fortunes instead of indulging even further in doom and gloom.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Blanchard, B. L. The Mother [47North, 2023].