Born into one of the most prominent families of her village, Cal Cara Kerig receives an excellent education and under other circumstances might have lived a privileged life. Instead, at age five she watches the men of her village murder her mother for the crime of visiting the wells of vision, an occult site prohibited to women. She is a teenager when her father leads an ill-advised rebellion against the region's ruling family, the Galu, and when the rebellion is crushed the Galu mutilate Cara and everyone else in her family. With a hideously scarred face and a deep hatred of the Galu, Cara turns to the magic of her village's outcast women. As a rite of passage, the women use a spell to shapeshift into the animal of their choice for a single year, but to the women's astonishment, the "beast" Cara chooses to become is not a hawk or a wolf but a male warrior.
As Cara strides off full of confidence and rage to take revenge on the Galu, one might expect the story to become a wish-fulfillment power fantasy in the vein of The Count of Monte Cristo, but almost immediately Cara is set upon by bandits and nearly killed. Although magic has given her a handsome face, strong muscles, and even a sword and shield, having grown up a woman she was taught how to cook, not how to fight. She presses on in spite of this and other setbacks, learning as she does that both the drought that spurred her mother to prophesy and the Galu themselves are merely the symptoms of a greater disorder in the universe that only she can set right.
The Warrior Who Carried Life is Geoff Ryman's first novel, originally published in 1985 and recently reissued by ChiZine Publications. Ryman is best known to genre readers for his 2005 masterpiece Air, a novel about the arrival of a futuristic version of the Internet to a poor central Asian town. Warrior begins on similar ground, opening in Cara's small farming village in a non-specific but vaguely Asian locale. But where Air was a science fiction story that stayed focused on its village, painting a wonderfully nuanced picture of its people and their varied responses to technological change, Warrior is a mythic fantasy that relentlessly broadens the scope of its story until it encompasses all of humanity.
What distinguishes Warrior from most entries into the mythic fantasy genre is its relationship to real mythology. In her Tor.com review of the novel, Jo Walton calls it a "version of the story of Gilgamesh, a subverted version where Gilgamesh is a girl," but this isn't quite right. Cara is not herself a Gilgamesh analogue; she's someone who grew up hearing stories of a Gilgamesh-like hero called Keekamis whose quest to conquer death took him not to the immortal survivor of the great flood, as in the real Gilgamesh epic, but to the lost Garden of Eden where he learns the story of Hadam and Hawwah, the first man and woman. It's true that Cara eventually retraces Keekamis's journey and travels to Eden herself, but Cara's story is not a rewrite of the Gilgamesh and Eden myths, it's a story about how she herself rewrites them after having learned that the stories she was taught were poisonous lies that have done great damage to humans in general and women in particular.
That Warrior is a novel with a lot to say about gender issues ought to be clear even from the barest summary of its plot, but for the first half of the novel they stay somewhat in the background. Ryman's choices when depicting Cara's change say a lot on their own, of course: despite her male anatomy, the third-person narrative unfailingly refers to Cara with female pronouns and she herself always sees herself as a woman, implying that gender is socially constructed. Gender, but perhaps not sexuality, for after the change she is sexually interested in women for the first time. But Cara herself is too focused on vengeance to concern herself much with just how much she's changed or what it might mean. Her travels take her to a slave plantation, a company of mercenaries and their status-conscious wives, and a refugee camp, where she sees plenty of women suffering and occasionally notes the injustice of it, but in most of these places there are plenty of men suffering as well. When she comes to a country ruled by women, it's by far the most advanced of the places she visits, but any implied endorsement is undercut when the sorceress who leads it proves to be scheming and untrustworthy.
But as the story takes its mythic turn and becomes focused on the Eden myth and its consequences, the novel's message about gender abruptly becomes strident. The truth that Cara learns is that the only serpent in the garden was Adam, and that Adam alone rebelled against God and then tried to blame Eve. He didn't fool God, who punished him by changing him into a serpent, but he did manage to fool his descendants. Just in case the reader could possibly be failing to make the association, the text switches from the Hebrew names Hadam and Hawwah to the more familiar Adam and Eve at the moment Cara discovers the awful truth. For good or ill, there's a vehemence to all this that's absent in the original myth. The original Genesis text can be, and frequently has been, read as putting the majority of the blame on Eve. But it can also be read in other ways. Warrior allows no argument: the fall is entirely Adam's fault. Hawwah's advice to Cara about Hadam is representative: "He lies and lies and lies. Don't trust him. Do nothing he wishes" (p. 126).
Of course, Cara didn't set out to discover the origins of the patriarchy or improve how women are treated; she just wanted to find some way to defeat the Galu. While nothing in Warrior ever seems much like a conventional fantasy novel, the Galu are its most impressive creation. Despite appearing to be men, they are actually a race of monsters who multiply when, and only when, they are killed by violence. To propagate themselves they purposefully incite murder and start unnecessary wars. They're a remarkable metaphor for the self-propogating nature of violence in human society. They're also entirely Adam's fault. The strong connection Warrior seems to be implying between violence and masculinity is one of the only aspects of the novel that sounds a little old-fashioned.
However, while Warrior goes to great lengths to make sure what it's saying about Eden gets across, it's left to the reader to figure out what to make of the Galu, the relationship between its revised Eden account and real-life patriarchy, and just what Ryman is trying to say in the dreamlike last third of the novel, in which Cara tries and mostly fails to defeat death and restore humanity's severed connection with the divine. Warrior's prose remains simple and clear throughout and there's never any doubt about what's happening, yet it nevertheless makes great demands on the reader, for without carefully decoding its symbols it's not at all obvious what any of it is supposed to mean, especially the ending. In a 2006 interview Ryman spoke dismissively of "literature lite," his term for literature where "there is no subtext or symbolism to be unpacked, no deep layers, and the language is utterly conventional." If Warrior's language is, in fact, largely conventional, it makes up for it with extra helpings of subtext, symbolism, and deep layers.
Considered merely for its surface story, The Warrior Who Carried Life is an interesting failure, elegantly written and packed with startling and memorable imagery, but also saddled with awkward pacing and a nearly incomprehensible ending. Just on those terms it's probably still worth reading for those who enjoy mythology and want something well off fantasy's beaten track, but it's readers interested in gender issues and who enjoy excavating meaning out of a complicated text who will get the most of out the novel.