Author: L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Series: 17th book in the Saga of Recluce (however, like most Recluce books, stands alone; reading the previous titles is not required at all)
Format: Mass-market paperback
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, 2011
Genre: Fantasy, (feminist with a question mark, military, political)
Plot: The female Arms-Commander Saryn, and her squads of female soldiers, is sent to the country of Lornth to fight all the evil men - who hate women who wield swords and will do everything in their power to crush a woman with arms ability. Unfortunately, because L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is a cis man, there's something of a lack of nuance, and it doesn't well highlight the plight of women, which leaves the reader feeling that Saryn's actions are sometimes questionable. Modesitt, I want to be rooting for women kicking cis-male arse, why won't you let me?
To make it clear, this isn't a review as much as it is an analysis. I'm far more interested in analysing than providing an actual review, so there's going to be a bias towards what doesn't work, and why.
Trigger warnings: Discussion of misogyny, rape, heterosexism/the stunning absence of people who are not cis/het, unconscious ableism
On the author/backlist: I have a love-hate affair with his books (I've read all his fantasy, most of his SF) wherein he writes the same character type over and over in most books, has a habit of explaining pointless things in great detail (food, scenery, clothing ... good worldbuilding is good, but so many fantasists have taken a page or five from Robert Jordan, and it just bogs down the story when taken to such extremes) and doesn't have much of a clue about rising tension or how to structure a gripping plot. However, he does tend to write intelligent, thought-out politics and combat scenes, has some awareness of how badly traditional fantasy writes and treats women, and still has, I think, one of the better magic systems going in the Recluce books, at least for traditional/epic fantasy. For readers who don't need or want a gripping plot, and are interested in politics and ideas and human interactions and slow-growing character arcs, Modesitt has a lot to offer.
(His best books, I think, are the SF novels The Eternity Artefact and The Ethos Effect, both of which are very intelligent when it comes to looking at the role and mystery of alien life with regards to a future humanity, and deserve recommendation; I also like the Recluce starter The Magic of Recluce, and the Nylan books Fall of Angels and The Chaos Balance.)
On why I was reading: I had to stop reading his books for a few years because the sameness got to me (Imager cemented this, after reading the Corean books), but Arms-Commander has a female lead, is set in the woman-dominated society of Westwind, and was back in Recluce, following my favourite duology of the Recluce series. The opening quote suggests that Modesitt does in fact get something of the double-standard that faces women who excel in fields dominated by men/in misogynistic society/rape culture, and I'll confess, I was hopeful that if he was writing a woman-dominated, woman-centric society, there might be lesbian relationships. He had included a gay male relationship in The Ethos Effect (MC has two fathers and a mother, which I think was handled pretty well) so maybe, just maybe, this book wouldn't be a straight-fest, and wouldn't that be a delight?
On the writing: Modesitt, you either need to listen to your editor, or get a new one. Your writing isn't bad, but a good editor could take you to the next level, and why not shoot for the stars? People who are not professional writers or editing students are probably not going to care. I, however, care. The wrong character's name was used twice. You like to overuse the word 'unseen' (three times in four paragraphs). You described the forest that wasn't a real forest, but more like a woodlot, twice in two pages. (Believe me, the reader got it the first time.) I also tend to repetitiveness, so I know how hard it is to see it in your own work, but that's what a good editor is for. I know, you're a best-selling author who's written lots of books, but why not try and make your writing as good as it can be?
Less adverbs, less fancy speech tags (the work is full of '"I don't like that," she opined': since we know this is an opinion because we readers are not stupid and can figure this out, why not use 'said'?) would be great.
Also, you have a tendency to write things like (I'm paraphrasing because I lost my page counts and because it happened too many times) "The men fought with great fury and despair. That's what it seemed like to Saryn." which just makes me want to bang my head against the nearest wall. If you must note the fact that Saryn is making this observation and is unsure, can't you write it like "It seemed to Saryn that the men fought with great fury and despair"? That second sentence is so clunky, and draws my attention to the prose (which your prose shouldn't be doing: it should be invisible), and makes me wonder if Saryn isn't actually smart enough to observe that the men are fighting with fury and despair, and it might only be a seeming? In short, you have me thinking about all the wrong things when you use such sentences, so - don't.
On writing magically-talented characters: When I was younger and my Sense of Snark had yet to develop, I wrote the world's hugest Gary Stu. He was an empath, and that was awesome, because his magical powers meant he knew what everyone around him was really thinking and feeling! I wrote a million words (I was an unemployed uni student yet to develop my current disability, I had time) all about this character, and I actually got to the point where I was thinking to myself that I didn't know how anyone would write normal characters anymore.
In other words, I got so used to being able to justify telling by the nature of the story's universe that I forgot how to show.
Modesitt also writes about characters who are mages, who can sense things like truth and honesty and lies and subterfuge, who might as well be empaths.
So the book is riddled with dialogue where a character will say something that looks and sounds polite, friendly, or supportive, and then there's Saryn [any Modesitt mage character] telling us it's not, that the words are actually [insert negative/unsupportive emotion here]. Not only is it boring, but it saps the tension from the story when the characters magically know who is good and bad, who is and isn't a traitor, and they just know that an attack is going to come later, without any evidence or justification.
I know, the characters know things that Ordinary Characters don't, wouldn't, or can't. But the telling is way too obvious, and is seldom backed up by the characters' actions and dialogue. When the evil guys always present as polite and friendly, and there's no evidence to the contrary, and it's just Saryn telling me that they're bad until the endgame, I'm really not inclined to believe her.
On the feminism: Please assume that all references to men and women involve references to cis, het, able-bodied men and women, because other kinds of people do not seem to exist, and PWDs in this universe have magic, or somehow do not have difficulties in living with their disabilities (often both).
The start of this book, which is all about women, involves women sitting around and talking about how they need more men despite the fact that their leader, Ryba, doesn't trust the local men in the (very) misogynist society outside of Westwind - because children, and veiled references to sex and how they're not getting any. For something that should pass the Bechdel Test without trying, with women having conversations with other women all the time, this book often doesn't. I still don't understand why there needs to be so much discussion on how Westwind can't be a true society without women having male consorts. I'd much rather see a society built around women being single and independent, and having romantic relationships with each other. I think a civilisation based on being a place where women can escape misogyny, and bring their children, is much more interesting, and would over time result in raising the kind of men women deserve and need, if that's their inclination ... alongside warm, loving, same-gender relationships. It's like Modesitt's only gotten half the idea, and they need more men for more children and more het relationships now, and it's very frustrating.
I'm also unhappy with the way Saryn went about establishing a new world order where Women Must Inherit All Positions of Responsibility and Women Must Be Soldiers In Order To Be Rulers (text stated that women who could not fight could not inherit rulership positions; I wondered about all the badarse PWDs who could manage accounts and motivate their people and rule quite well, thank you very much – the way the book seems to think that the only powerful women are those who can hold a sword and have the physical ability to fight, and should want to fight, disgusts me, and I'm not even cis) because I had the impression Modesitt was making the argument that Women Who Get Power Are As Bad As The Men.* Who needs to make that kind of argument? How is this intelligent or inspiring? How is this supposed to give girls and women fantasy heroines to identify with?
However. For me, it actually got worse. Let me quote at you:
There had been three women, one much older and white-haired. She'd tried to flee and had been run down by a rider and struck from behind. The other two, one of whom looked barely out of girlhood, had been stripped from the waist down, and been used by the brigands before their throats had been cut.
- Arms-Commander, page 59.
This is being relayed to the reader by Saryn, the eponymous Arms-Commander, a woman of some magic talent and much skill in leadership and with arms, defender of the women of Westwind. She also doesn't show any much emotion to the reader - in fact, all we get to see are a few of her soldiers saying things like "Bastard men" in response, and not what I'd be saying, which is "Bloody fucking bastard rapists, let's find them and cut their balls off and shove them down their throats! You with me, girls? YOU WITH ME?"
Basically, she's describing the rape of women, by armsmen, so dispassionately, and in such neutral terms, it's hard to get a sense that she actually cares. This is a horribly traumatic thing - women, who were on their way to safety at Westwind, were raped and murdered by men trying to stop them. 'Used'? Really? People 'use' a fork; they 'rape' a woman. A woman is not an implement. If you're going to include this, then at least use the real words. (It's also not assault, which is also used several times later on - it's rape.) I'd like to see Saryn use stronger words, to show some anger, because there's this weird distancing thing going on here, and the words feel clinical and masculine. I was horrified reading the scene, but I wasn't horrified enough, because Modesitt never got far enough inside his protagonist's skin to bring the horror of this scene to light.
Armsmen captured a group of women travelling to the female sanctuary of Westwind, and doing absolutely nothing wrong or illegal, and then raped and murdered them. (But not the old one. That's also icky.) How much more horrible can this get? (That's not a rhetorical question, just to make that clear.) Why isn't this framed in emotive language and responses? Where's the anger, the horror? Some of the soldiers in Saryn's squad are survivors who now have the ability to fight for themselves and other women, so where's their reactions, their strength of feeling, their misery, their avowals of revenge, their flashbacks, their memories?
(Okay, I'm probably writing too much of my own trauma history into this. Sorry.)
All I can conclude is that a cis man wrote this, because the whole scene felt distant and lacking, and I wanted – needed – more.
Conclusion: This is more feminist than a lot of work out there, at least in terms of how many female characters there are, but I by far prefer works like Isobelle Carmody's Legendsong books for my feminist fantasy cravings, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls. There's an emphasis on military might and physical ability that creeps me out, the writing could use a little work, and I really don't think this is all that feminist beyond a 'Here's all my women with swords and rulership positions' kind of way, which is a pretty basic/beginning level of getting it. There's lots of battle-scenes, so if you like reading about people fight, and plot, and scheme, this could be for you. I finished it, but I couldn't recommend it without reservations because so much of it is problematic.
I wouldn't recommend this to queer folk or PWD because if you start thinking about all the spaces where we should exist, and do not, it becomes a very uncomfortable read. Reading about women discussing how they needed men to be a functional society made me feel unhappy, in a vagina-possessing-coded-as-a-woman-most-of-the-time-even-if-my-gender-is-more-complicated-attracted-to-women way, although maybe I can file this in the back of my head to do something with, myself.
* This ties into later books where a Second New World Order is created on the basis of gender equality, which means most women are insignificant walk-on roles. Maybe I should review all the Recluce books from a queer/PWD/feminist/editing perspective…