Throughout the kingdoms of the Seven Wells, women are treated as second-class citizens, their lives subject to the control of men, while cast-off noblewomen are sent to the Abbey of the Unwanted to sell their bodies and their magic for the benefit of the crown. But after generations of planning, the current Abbess Brynna—the divorced, former queen of Aaltah—is ready to fight back. At the cost of their lives, Brynna and her daughter and granddaughter perform a spell which alters both the world and its magic forever, ensuring that no woman anywhere can fall or stay pregnant against her will. The sheer scope of the spell brings other changes, too: among them, a tsunami, earthquakes, and a new Well of magical elements, many accessible only to women, in the formerly barren Wasteland. Responding to this chaotic upheaval are Alys, legitimate but disinherited daughter of Brynna and the king; Alys’s Nandel-born sister-in-law, Shelvon, who miscarries the instant Brynna’s spell takes effect; Ellin, a young princess unexpectedly crowned queen of Rhozinolm after the spell’s earthquakes kill off most of the royal family; and Chanlix, an abigail elevated to Abbess at the brutal whim of Shelvon’s husband, Prince Delnamal. Their stories and relationships intertwine as their respective kingdoms struggle to understand the scope of Brynna’s actions, because in a world where women now have irrevocable control of their pregnancies, marriages of alliance will never be the same.
There is nothing quite like the special brand of exasperation produced by a book that captivates in the first third, aggravates in the second, and alternately bores and confuses during the finale. I wanted to like The Women’s War—its openly feminist premise is exactly the sort of thing I usually gravitate towards—and yet, I’m very sorry to say, the execution is so bungled, along so many axes, that at multiple points, it left me wanting to hurl the book at the wall. Though the novel’s structural and conceptual problems are less severe than its thematic ones, the presence of the former worked to magnify and thus compound the offences of the latter, making it difficult to discuss the three as separate issues. Nonetheless, for the sake of fairness and clarity, I will attempt to do so, though with the caveat that, from this point on, There Be Spoilers.
For the first hundred pages, The Women’s War is an engaging, powerful read. We’re introduced to Alysoon, aka Alys, as she visits her mother, Brynna, in the Abbey of the Unwanted. Unbeknownst to Alys, Brynna is preparing to die to change the world, and though she gives Alys a veiled warning of what’s to come, she doesn’t tell her the truth. What follows is a quick, tense build-up followed by an explosive, complicated aftermath: the spell is unleashed on the Seven Wells, and in addition to the intended consequences—no woman can fall or stay pregnant against her will—it also causes natural disasters and other magical fallout, forcing Alys and Ellin to respond in their respective kingdoms of Aaltah and Rhozinolm. There are political repercussions, too: Shelvon, trapped in a loveless political marriage to Prince Delnamal, immediately miscarries because of the spell, prompting her husband to take out his rage out on the Abbey. After overseeing the gang rape and abuse of the remaining abigails Delnamal appoints one of the victims, Chanlix, as the new Abbess, reasoning that her brutalisation will make her obedient and submissive to the crown.
It makes for compelling reading, which is why it’s so disappointing when the novel loses its impetus by switching its focus away from the spell’s fallout and onto romantic subplots for Ellin and Chanlix. And I like romance! Both as genre and device, I am decidedly pro-romance: but in two very different ways, the romances in The Women’s War both underwhelm and infuriate while developing neither plot nor characterisation (more of which later). Very little else happens for this whole middle third of the novel; or rather, things do happen, but not in an interesting way. The Women’s Well, as it comes to be called, is discovered in the Wasteland; Alys tries to arrange a marriage for her daughter, Jinnell, while secretly learning magic; and Ellin tries to deal with Tamzin, her main rival for the throne; but despite the narrative potential of all these things, there’s little forward momentum, with Shelvon’s POV largely dropped until the finale.
Then, in the final third of the novel, there’s a change in gear: everything suddenly happens at once, but in an awkward, offhand fashion, with most of the action taking place off-page. Within weeks, Chanlix and Tynthanal have turned the Women’s Well into a functional town, ostensibly by trading potions and other magical workings with the surrounding (unnamed, undescribed) townships in exchange for labour and materials—but given how scantly the setting is rendered, this reads like blasé handwavium. Alys comes to visit and, along with Chanlix and the abigails, basically revolutionizes magic overnight, creating a raft of new spells by combining masculine and feminine elements in new ways—but we’re only told about their discoveries after the fact, not shown how they developed the ideas in the first place nor how the magic works within the established system. Back in Aaltah, the king catches a cold and dies within the space of about two chapters, elevating Delnamal to the throne—we don’t see his coronation or any relevant changes around his ascension, but he immediately takes Jinnell and her brother into the palace and starts proceedings to marry Jinnell to Shelvon’s father, because he’s going to divorce Shelvon and wants to placate his ally.
And then, as if things weren’t already weird enough, we get the big finale. Having dithered for literally the entire book about Tamzin’s threat to her reign and how she can’t kill him, Ellin makes an alliance with Alys, facilitated by Alys’s newly developed magical technology, and uses a previously unmentioned spell of Alys’s making to painfully, graphically kill Tamzin after he’s a gross jerk to her in a council meeting, which. I guess is meant to be an exhibition of Girl Power™ and not a wildly incongruous WTF moment attempting to compensate for the previous tedium with some surprise body horror. But. Well. Yeah. Meanwhile, back in Aaltah, Jinnell uses her trip to Nandel as a distraction so that her brother can escape with Shelvon to the Women’s Well, where Tynthanal and Chanlix decide that Alys should declare herself the sovereign queen of their new principality, because … reasons? So Delnamal sends troops to fight them, but Tynthanal’s men rout the bigger force—in a climactic battle that we don’t actually see—because they have Superior New Magic. In response, Delnamal musters a force of ten thousand men and rides out there to make Alys surrender by telling her he’ll kill Jinnell if she doesn’t; Alys refuses, and then—surprise!—Delnamal reveals that Jinnell was already dead—her murder also takes places off-screen; the last we see of her, she’s still alive in Nandel—and produces her body as proof, as he apparently brought it with him. And then he and his ten thousand men just, like … ride away? Without fighting? Because something something tactics and Alys’s new alliance with Ellin something, and that’s the end, thank god.
I repeat: every major magical development, the only battle in the entire book, and the pointless death of Jinnell, who is a POV character during the final chapters, all happen off-page—not out of necessity, but because, once she’s done with the setup, Glass never quite seems to know where to rest her narrative focus. Which is, I would argue, exactly what tends to happen when a novel’s worldbuilding is too thin and poorly constructed to support an unfolding plot: you have to find creative ways to avoid showing all those pesky details you haven’t worked out yet. For all that the first third of The Women’s War was engaging, functionally it asked more questions of the setting and themes than Glass was prepared to answer, and that’s disappointing on multiple levels. A prime example of this is how quickly the consequences of the tsunami and earthquakes caused by Brynna’s spell are glossed over and ignored. Even in the modern era, natural disasters on the scale described require significant effort to rebuild afterwards, but in The Women’s War, which details a six-month span of aftermath, the whole thing is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. There’s talk about buildings in Aalwell being destroyed and the magical lifters up to the rich parts of the city requiring repairs, a minor reference to the Harbour District being full of rubble and a lack of magical, breath-filtering kerchiefs for the workers, a later offhand reference to the brothels being open again, and that’s … it.
This elision is even more jarring during Ellin’s sections in Rhozinolm, where Brynna’s earthquake destroyed part of the palace and killed most of the royal family. Even though Ellin spends almost the entire book in the palace, we never hear about it being repaired or what interruptions to daily life have happened as a result, either there or elsewhere. There’s no disease, no food shortages, no rise in crime, just Ellin learning about secret passages through the palace which, despite the earthquake, are apparently all intact and safe, the better to conduct her Secret Romance. For all that our nobly born protagonists are meant to be concerned with governance and duty, their surroundings feel like the graphics in an ancient video game: blocky pixels that render as basic shapes when a POV character passes through before devolving back into mist, so that we never have to focus overmuch on anything beyond their personal dramas.
This is also disappointingly true of the novel’s background characters, or rather, the conspicuous lack thereof. Without wanting to skip ahead to a second vein of criticism, in a novel that overtly presents as feminist, it’s conspicuous that none of the female characters are depicted as having existing female friends, even when they’re contextually surrounded by women. Though passing reference is made to Alys having friends and acquaintances among the nobles of Aaltah, we never meet any of them: she has no court circle and no intellectual companions, and even though reference is made to her daughter Jinnell having friends, we never see Alys think about or meet their parents. (Tellingly, when we do finally see parts of the story from Jinnell’s perspective, none of these friends appear then, either; not even in her thoughts.)
In Alys’s case, there’s some excuse for the dissonance—she’s a little iconoclastic and a recent widow, which can feasibly explain her isolation, especially once her association to Brynna paints her in a negative light—but that doesn’t apply to Ellin, a young court princess who ought to have an entire clique of friends and noble associates surrounding her by default. Instead, the only woman she shares any time with is her maid, Star, and given the overwhelming focus on noble characters, it’s hard not to view their closeness—like that of Alys with her own maid, Honor—as a token, lazy way of saying, “see, there’s no need to engage in any real class critique in this story, because MY noblewomen are NICE to commoners!” Even Chanlix, who lives surrounded by women in the Abbey, is never shown to be friends with any of them: she certainly knows a few by name, but shares in no real camaraderie otherwise.
The Seven Wells are a blank space geographically, too. Aside from the capitals, there’s no sense that any other towns or cities exist—certainly, none are marked on the map at the start of the book—and the sense of distance is profoundly muddled by timeskips that gloss over journeys without reference to any places or landscapes that exist between Aalwell and the Women’s Well, Aaltah and Nandel, Nandel and Rhozinolm. This lack of description stands in contrast to the pointless details we’re given about trade agreements between the countries and their vital importance for continued peace, none of which connects to anything tangible in the story. Rather, we’re told about the treaties because the alliances they represent are the reasons why various women are being pressured to marry, not because the actual resources and trade routes we get to hear about play any meaningful part in the story. (Although they should do, given that two nations are meant to be recovering from natural disasters. But I digress.)
To be clear: I have no objection to any novel, and especially one with an emphasis on feminism, deciding to focus on arranged marriages over other aspects of governance. It’s just that, if I’m meant to accept these extra details as background information, then I at least need for them to be coherent and internally consistent, not rendered so cheaply that they continually throw me out of the story. But even with all these complaints, if Glass’s worldbuilding was at least intelligently constructed around those aspects of the plot and setting that directly impact its feminist themes, I could forgive the other incongruities, or at very least recategorize them as minor inconveniences—but even where it matters most, she hasn’t taken the time to think things through.
Take the Abbey of the Unwanted, the existence of which serves as a lynchpin for the entire plot: the women sent there are already ruined, which is why their performance of magic is socially permitted. But as there’s seemingly no authority in place to police or punish women who use magic in other contexts—and as there are clear class distinctions drawn between the virtue of noblewomen and that of commoners, to say nothing of the fact that there are brothels elsewhere—it makes little sense that, in a novel about female resistance, the Abbey is billed as the only source of female magic-users anywhere, or that no existing groups of rebellious women appear in the aftermath of the spell. Nor is it ever explained how the Abbey itself is policed and guarded: given their status, it makes no sense for the abigails to be entirely self-governing, and yet the Abbess is the highest authority within the Abbey, with no jailers or wardens to overrule her commands or supervise her use of magic. This lack of guards is seemingly supported twice over by the fact that Delnamal first sends his own soldiers to brutalize the abigails, and then commands his half-brother Tynthanal and his company of men to accompany the women on their exile to the Wasteland, all without any reference to an existing body of guardsmen. But when Chanlix thinks of all the times she yearned for escape from the Abbey, we’re meant to think of her and the other abigails as prisoners—as though they were trapped by something more than convention and bricks.
And then there’s the concept of noblewomen being forced into crown-mandated sex work in the first place, to the point where even the former queen is victimized. A social system this misogynistically vicious to even its most privileged women needs more contextual explanation than “men suck and also want to control Girl Magic while still devaluing it,” but none is ever provided. Religious zealotry would be the obvious go-to, but aside from the queen, who carries a Devotional and prays a lot to the Mother, religious institutions of any kind seemingly play no part in the running of either the kingdoms or their Abbeys. Culturally, the setting is otherwise a very generic, vaguely European mishmash, with each nation being superficially reminiscent of a specific historical-religious framework despite the total lack of investigation into religion: Aaltah has a sort of prudish, Victorian moralism (though everyone has Victorian mourning); Nandel is harsh in a Protestant Scottish way; Khalpar, where the queen is from, is implied to be Catholic Spanish; and Rhozinolm is … something, I guess? It’s a place, and it has a queen now, which it did once before, and there’s no other distinguishing cultural nuances: no sense of clothing, food, currency, festivals, art, architecture—nothing. It’s a bowl of beige oatmeal that’s recognisable only as a place because you’ve read other fantasy novels or saw a history movie that one time. Fill in the blanks as you please; there are plenty to go around.
Taken collectively, all these issues are why I say that the setting can’t support the ongoing plot: beyond the drama of the opening scenes, Glass hasn’t put any thought into what else is going on in her world or how its pieces function, so that when her protagonists start to move around, they’re like puppets in an empty theatre, intended to interact only with each other. Which is why, in turn, the final act of the book is so bananas: nothing she’s created has enough depth to be explicitly shown, and so she relates it offhand instead. As a piece of writing advice, show don’t tell is grossly overused and frequently misapplied, but in the case of The Women’s War, I’m forced to trot it out. We don’t see Alys and the abigails making their magical breakthroughs because this would require a more in-depth explanation of Glass’s elements, their workings, and their traditional use than the superficial examples we get early on; instead, we’re told about it. We don’t see the battle happen because then we’d need to know exactly how many new spells have been made, as well as details of the terrain and tactics; easier to just tell us that it happened. And we don’t see Jinnell brought home to die, because then we’d have to explain how she didn’t try or succeed in an escape, as well as how her death was handled—both literally and politically—at the palace, including the reactions of other characters to Delnamal either killing her there or bringing her with him as a captive and murdering her en route; it’s more surprising just to have him drop her body on the ground.
This decision to kill Jinnell offstage and use her body to shock effect is, I would argue, emblematic of the novel’s thematic failings, and this is where my criticism starts to feel more personal. I appreciate that Glass set out to write a feminist fantasy novel, but while I won’t go so far as to say she’s failed completely in that endeavour, she hasn’t exactly succeeded, either. The problem isn’t that she’s leaning wholly on a very simplified version of Feminism 101, though this is certainly true: whatever my personal preferences, there’s always going to be a place—and a genuine need—for stories that introduce readers to ground-level feminist concepts. Rather, it’s that she’s taken Feminism 101 and done it badly—and in a book whose front-cover promo-quote describes it as “#MeToo and #Resistance through the lens of epic fantasy” and which is dedicated “to all the feminists—past and present—who have fought for women’s rights,” that failure feels more pointed and more personal than would otherwise be the case.
Which puts me in the awkward, frustrating position of having to now critique the core themes of a story which, despite its failings, is at least trying to achieve a goal of which I heartily approve. Believe me, I’m not remotely happy at how much this book annoyed me. I’d been looking forward to reading it and was thrilled to receive an ARC from Strange Horizons. But with the best will in the world, I can’t pretend I liked it when I didn’t—and yet, at the same time, I want to be conscious of the fact that my feminism is not the only feminism; that my personal convictions do not constitute a universal yardstick against which all feminist narratives should be measured. That being so, I want to be clear that this part of the review isn’t me trying to pull a No True Scotsman regarding either the feminist themes of the book or the views of Glass herself. I’m speaking for myself, from my own understanding of feminism, and the ways in which this perspective contextualizes my dissatisfaction with the narrative.
And my personal perspective is: this book completely fails at intersectional feminism. It doesn’t engage with class issues, despite the clear potential to do so; contains zero acknowledgement of queerness, despite its obvious relevance to both the themes and worldbuilding; has almost no engagement with sexual trauma, despite featuring multiple rapes; pushes a muddled and frankly concerning notion of consent, both sexually and regarding bodily autonomy; introduces elements of toxic masculinity without addressing their consequences or explaining how the many sympathetic male characters have bypassed their cultural upbringing; continually robs the female characters of agency by giving their epiphanies to male characters; and, overall, appears to conceive of feminism as a movement whereby straight, privileged women get to chose their own sexual partners, who are all Good Men apparently raised in a cultural vacuum.
From the outset, The Women’s War introduces us to a setting where magic is highly gendered, and where women are largely prohibited from practising it. The Seven Wells that give the setting its name are literal, physical wells: natural springs which generate large quantities of magical elements, and which are zealously guarded by their respective kingdoms. These hundreds of different elements, which also occur naturally beyond the Wells, and which are categorized as being either masculine, feminine, or neuter, become visible when a person opens their Mindseye, a sort of magical sight which everyone has to some degree, but which only men are encouraged to use. The exception is the women who live in the Abbey of the Unwanted, a sort of prison-brothel populated by abigails: divorced, cast-off, criminal, or otherwise abandoned noblewomen. Forced into sex work at the Pavilion during their youth, with the bulk of each Abbey’s profits being claimed by the royal treasury, the abigails are the only women socially permitted to practise magic, on the basis that, as their virtue is already ruined forever, no harm can come of it—and as feminine elements are largely only visible to women, there’s financial benefit to be had in producing and selling the types of magical products, such as fertility potions and healing tonics, that men can’t make.
Given the extent to which the premise of The Women’s War is based on magic and gender, therefore, the magical worldbuilding really needs to work—and to my mind, it doesn’t. While the idea of naturally occurring magical elements is a fascinating one, there’s no cohesion to what we’re told about why these elements are gendered in the first place. Supposedly, men can mostly see masculine elements and women feminine ones, with neuter elements visible to both, but there’s also a great deal of crossover, where the strongest magic users can see just about any element. This being so, I was holding out hope for an eventual reveal that the gendered elemental categories aren’t fundamental to the world itself, but are rather social constructs imposed on magic by sexist practitioners. But this reveal never comes, and while it might yet arrive in a future instalment, the more likely interpretation is that Glass has simply built an inherently cissexist version of magic into her world and imbued it with gender essentialism (women’s magic heals, men’s magic builds), a decision which feels especially ugly given what we learn about a particular element, Kai.
At the start of the book, when Brynna andher daughter and granddaughter are all preparing to cast their great spell, we learn that the final element necessary is Kai, a masculine element that appears only when a person is close to death, and which is described on page 28 as being “elusive, powerful, and visible only to men of the noble houses—and to these three women.” As Kai is only produced by a mortal wound, can only be used by the dying individual, and is (mostly) only visible to men, the idea that these women can use their own Kai would seem to support the idea that the gendered categorisation is ultimately arbitrary. But as the story progresses, we learn that one of the unintended consequences of Brynna’s spell is to create a new element, referred to as “women’s Kai,” which appears to women who’ve been raped.
When you build gender and sexuality into your core magical premise and then don’t mention queerness—not ever, not even in passing, not even once—I get angry, not just because I’m a bi, genderqueer person reading your book who literally exists, but because it means your worldbuilding is fundamentally flawed. The reveal about Kai raises countless questions about the setting: will boys and men who are raped get Kai, or is it only women? Is Glass intentionally making the thematic point that rape is worse than death for women, or is that just an accident? Did dying women besides Brynna and her relatives generate Kai they couldn’t see or use? How does any of this work for non-cis folks? None of them are answered. I understand that Glass is trying to make a Feminist Point ™ about how Surviving Rape Makes Women Strong while also introducing a magical way for victims to take revenge on their assailants, but uncritical gender essentialism doesn’t need to be part of it.
And then we come to the romance issues, which—as previously mentioned—dominate the middle third of the book. The worst offender of the two is that between Chanlix, the abigail appointed Abbess after suffering gang rape on Delnamal’s orders, and Tynthanal, a soldier who is both Delnamal’s half-brother and the son of Brynna, the previous Abbess. In the ordinary course of things, this dynamic could make for a fascinating and complex romance: Chanlix was confined and abused in the Abbey throughout her youth, and has been recently retraumatized; Tynthanal’s mother was sent to the Abbey when he was a child, and he’s now being forced to confront not only the life she lived, but to guard the remaining abigails in their exile; and both Chanlix and Tynthanal are strongly magically gifted. There’s so much here that could be used to flesh out the world: conversations that could give us backstory on the characters and the culture of Aaltah while still progressing the plot, a romance uniting what Brynna’s spell tore apart—the whole thing is ripe with promise.
But instead of any of this, what we get is a jarring, hackneyed flirtation that feels crowbarred into the setting, not only because it develops out of nowhere—we never get any sections in Tynthanal’s POV, and as he’s the one who initiates things, we don’t see what draws him to Chanlix in the first place—but because the narrative completely fails to acknowledge the fact that Chanlix is a recent victim of gang rape at the hands of soldiers. More than at any other time in the book, I felt unnervingly as if the story itself were gaslighting me on this point: Chanlix’s trauma is ignored so completely that I started to doubt my own memory of what I’d already read, repeatedly flipping back to check that I wasn’t imagining things. But there it is, on page 113:
Hearing in his words an indication that the Abbey’s violation was over—at least for now—several of the abigails ran to their fallen comrades, covering their bodies with whatever filthy scraps of fabric they could salvage. Delnamal looked from one bruised and battered woman to another, then chose one whose bloody nose was crooked and broken and whose breasts were covered with bite marks. She was old enough to carry an aura of authority and battered enough to have learned her place.
Now, to be clear: there is no one way that victims experience trauma, and the presence of such recent abuse by no means prevents them from developing romantic and sexual feelings, even inconvenient ones. There are any number of ways that Chanlix might think and feel about having been brutalized, and how she might then process those feelings through the lens of her attraction to Tynthanal—revulsion, denial, repression, confusion, even a determined bid to regain her autonomy by embracing a man who represents its loss. But to avoid any mention of her trauma entirely reads like a catastrophic failure on Glass’s part to realize and factor in its existence. On top of this, Tynthanal expresses his flirtation in ways which, while fairly standard to a lot of romances, feel grossly inappropriate in the case of someone courting a woman he knows is a recent rape victim. Again: it’s completely possible for Chanlix to still want Tynthanal under these conditions, but the fact that her trauma never crosses her own mind when he, for instance, grabs her up onto a horse and ignores her request to be put down, as in one scene, or asks her to take off her wimple and then does it himself when she won’t, as in another, had me making audible angry noises while reading.
If I close my eyes and grope blindly for a charitable interpretation, I can imagine that Glass wanted to depict a sweet romance where a former unwilling sex worker and rape victim gets happily wooed by the handsome, good-guy soldier with the princely background. And that’s a nice thing to want to include in a story! But you do not—oh my actual god—you do not functionally achieve this by having Chanlix act as if she had never been abused at all; by completely ignoring the impact her experiences have had on her, and then having Tynthanal mention later on that she’s been “skittish” because of what she went through, when literally nothing in her internal narration up to that point has suggested this is the case.
On the march to the Wasteland, for instance, Tynthanal scoops a tired Chanlix onto his horse without asking permission, leading to this exchange on pages 224–225:
“Don’t worry, Mother Chanlix,” Tynthanal said with a laugh in his voice, “I will not let you fall.”
Throughout this journey, she had repeatedly asked him not to call her Mother. She was only four years his senior, and she still felt like an impostor. It made her uncomfortable enough when the abigails addressed her by that title, but it somehow sounded even stranger coming from this handsome soldier who was practically the same age as she.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she complained, although her body sagged in relief at not having to work so hard, at least for this short time. “Put me down.”
She wriggled, though her efforts to free herself were half-hearted at best … Tynthanal showed no inclination to set her back down, and if truth be told, she had no great inclination to fight him.
And then there’s this later moment on page 265, when Chanlix and Tynthanal are alone together at the Women’s Well:
The water rippled and splashed as Tynthanal closed the small distance between them and reached for her wimple. Chanlix started to jerk away, then forced herself to hold still as he carefully removed the pins that held the wimple in place. She should be telling him no in no uncertain terms—she knew him well enough by now to believe he would obey—but somehow that wasn’t what she was doing …
It was becoming harder and harder to deny that Tynthanal was flirting with her—as impossible as that was to comprehend—but she could not allow either of them to fall into temptation. No matter his near-exile, he was still a king’s son, and she would not have been a fit companion for him even before she’d become an abigail.
Where do I even start with dissecting this nonsense? Why is Chanlix worried about what Tynthanal deserves, but not concerned for her own physical safety? Why isn’t she achingly aware of the power imbalance between them, even though he’s functionally her jailer? Where’s her concern for what happens if she’s misjudged his character, given that he’s solely responsible for keeping the other abigails safe from his soldiers? None of these issues are ever addressed, and as Chanlix’s POV sections revolve so heavily around her feelings for Tynthanal that all else becomes secondary, it’s adding insult to injury that, rather than giving us a genuine, complex romance or detailing the far more salient work of establishing the town of Women’s Well, working with magic, and governing the abigails, we’re left instead with this unoriginal, heterosexual pablum.
The other romance involves Ellin and her captain of guard, Graesan, and while this pairing is nowhere near as maddening as that of Chanlix and Tynthanal, it represents a mashup of different problems, the most pressing of which concerns the novel’s approach to consent. As with so much else in The Women’s War, Ellin’s romantic arc suffers from Glass’s tell-don’t-show approach to writing. We’re told that Ellin and Graesan have a long-standing, mutually reciprocated yet wholly unspoken love for each other, but that’s a poor substitute for actually seeing it in action. Indeed, Graesan himself feels less like a character than a convenient way for Ellin to demonstrate her sexual autonomy: as with Tynthanal, we see no scenes from his POV, and also as with Tynthanal and Chanlix, there’s no mention made of the power imbalance between Graesan, who is a guardsman in Ellin’s employ, and Ellin, who is his sovereign and employer.
As Ellin’s romantic arc precedes Chanlix’s, I’d originally thought this latter problem was due to Graesan’s gender: that, if Ellin were in the less powerful position—if we were watching a king promote a socially inferior woman he wanted to sleep with because he “knows” she wants it too and needs an excuse for them to spend more time in private together, overriding her objections by getting physical and then having her unwittingly brought to his chambers—it would be blindingly obvious that the power dynamics are unhealthily skewed, to say nothing of being used in a skeevy way. But having seen what happens with Tynthanal and Chanlix, it’s clear that Glass simply hasn’t considered this aspect of things at all; that we’re genuinely meant to be cheering for Ellin’s choices. What this leaves us with is a rushed love connection that we’re never helped to invest in—more time is spent in showing us Graesan’s hesitation about beginning a relationship than on his characterisation—and that Ellin decides to make sexual at the urging of her maid, Star, who points out that the contraceptive element of Brynna’s spell means it’s now possible for women to take lovers without the risk of pregnancy.
Which would certainly be a boon to Ellin, if not for the fact that contraceptive potions already exist in the Seven Wells—indeed, they’re one of the first things we learn are produced by the abigails. Though their expense puts them beyond the reach of women like Star, to noblewomen like Ellin, the option of sex without pregnancy has always been available. As such, it feels ill-conceived (pun intended) that Star is the one to remind Ellin of her existing sexual freedom without any reference to the fact that commoners are the primary beneficiaries of Brynna’s spell, not queens. But then, that would mean acknowledging class differences in more than an offhand way, and that’s not something The Women’s War can be bothered to tackle. (Which is another reason why, particularly in Ellin’s case, the lack of secondary female characters feels glaring: if Ellin was having these conversations with a group of privileged friends, or even with more than one woman at a time, it would be much harder to elide the wider context.)
Thus, enlightened about an option she already had, Ellin embarks on a sexy, forbidden relationship with Graesan. Meanwhile, the man to whom she was formerly betrothed, Zarsha of Nandel—who has luckily turned out to be a decent chap, even supporting her romance with Graesan while still angling for a pragmatic marriage with Ellin—is helping her to combat the influence of Tamzin. However, events go awry when Graesan starts to act jealously, telling Ellin she should send Zarsha away. By this point, it feels par for the course that Graesan’s behaviour, which ought to be setting off warning bells, is not only ignored as such by Ellin, but explained away as being her fault. When the two discuss Zarsha on page 321, we’re told:
Graesan’s hands were clenched into angry fists, and the muscles of his jaw stood out in stark relief as he ground his teeth. Ellin cursed herself for speaking without thinking, for emphazising her easy familiarity with Zarsha when Graesan was already struggling with jealousy. Zarsha had offered to let her keep Graesan as her lover if she accepted his marriage proposal, but based on Graesan’s fiercely territorial behaviour, it seemed unlikely he would accept such an arrangement.
That Ellin, a woman raised in a sexist culture, has been conditioned to blame herself for the toxic emotions of men, is certainly realistic—and given that Graesan’s next move is to try and kill Zarsha in his sleep, having been poisoned against him by Tamzin’s whispers, there’s an argument to be made that his jealous aggression is meant to be recognized by the reader as a red flag. But when Zarsha reveals Graesan’s actions to Ellin, more narrative emphasis is placed on Graesan being manipulated into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons than on the idea that actually, his being angry and jealous in the first place—and dismissive of her intelligence, for that matter—is maybe a character flaw. As we see on page 338:
She’d known Graesan was angry about her refusal to send Zarsha away. And she’d also known he was worried about what Zarsha would do with his dangerous knowledge of their affair. But she never could have imagined he would do this …
Likely Graesan had been convinced he was doing this for her own good, that he was trying to protect her from their guilty secret, but no good intentions could overcome the crushing sense of betrayal that descended on her.
Thus ends the relationship of Graesan and Ellin, having taken up a fair chunk of the book without actually going anywhere. Though in keeping with the theme of things not making any sense, despite the fact that nobody knows about Graesan’s attack on Zarsha other than the three of them, apparently the only solution is for Graesan to be secretly vanished away to work for Zarsha in Nandel, because Zarsha is a prince and there’d be a diplomatic incident if Graesan was allowed to attack him without consequence. Which … okay, sure, or you could just not tell anyone what happened and find a plausible, public reason for Graesan to leave the palace, given his bad behaviour, given that he’s still your personal secretary and just having him vanish mysteriously probably ought to raise some questions all by itself. (It doesn’t, of course, because this goddamn book, but still. I’m just SAYING.)
Which brings me back to the matter of consent, agency, and bodily autonomy—specifically, to Brynna’s spell and its intended (as opposed to accidental) consequences. From the moment her plan was introduced at the start of the book, while still appreciating the powerful intent behind the spell, I was nonetheless sceptical of its wider efficacy. Clearly, the spell was never going to work as a panacea for an institutional culture of misogyny—and at first, the narrative seemed to understand this, too. The spellcasters themselves acknowledge that it won’t cause things to get better for women right away; when Alys learns of their actions after the fact, she expresses similar doubts; and the men in power are more concerned with reversing the spell than changing their behaviour to take its strictures into account. Even so, it didn’t feel incongruous for Brynna to be executing a flawed plan in the hope of a better future, partly because the plan itself had been so long in the making, but mostly because flawed plans are human plans, and Brynna is—was—a human character.
This issue is that, as Brynna writes to Alys on page 50:
From now on, no woman will conceive or carry a child unless she wishes to of her own free will. This is women’s magic, and it is subtle. The spell will know the difference between true free will and coercion.
The operative words here are from now on and true free will: because, as we see instantly in the case of Shelvon, the spell causes women who are already unhappily pregnant to miscarry as soon as it takes effect. But as Shelvon doesn’t know that the spell exists when she miscarries, she isn’t making an informed, consenting choice about whether or not to end her pregnancy—and as her political marriage requires her to produce an heir for Delnamal, an abhorrent man who refuses to change sufficiently for Shelvon to want to conceive willingly, her miscarriage marks the start of her escalating mistreatment at his hands.
Likewise, during one of Ellin’s sections, it’s mentioned as an aside that there’s been an unusually high number of miscarriages since the night of Brynna’s spell. What is not mentioned is how many women presumably died as a result of these miscarriages—and realistically, there would be deaths: it was a miscarriage that famously, tragically killed Savita Halappanavar in Ireland in 2012—or at what stages of pregnancy these women lost their children, or even whether some were far enough along that, rather than miscarrying, they instead gave birth prematurely, dangerously, to children who would either die postpartum or suffer potential health issues if they survived, all while subjecting their mothers to increased risks, too. As with Chanlix romancing Tynthanal with no narrative acknowledgement of her rape, so are these background miscarriages rendered with no narrative acknowledgement of their implications—and that, to me, is unconscionable in a story which is meant to take a Hashtag Feminist™ stance about bodily autonomy.
Because the truth is, there is no simple way to demarcate “true free will” from coercion in this context, and especially not when the spell itself causes women to miscarry without informing them that miscarriage is the universal consequence for their pre-existing doubts. By which I mean: if Shelvon— who, as a result of her forced miscarriage, ends up sick and insomniac, subjected to even more marital rape than before, and with increased abuse and loathing from her husband—had been able to choose whether to keep that pregnancy while knowing what the alternative would be, the plot of The Women’s War would be very different. Instead of her regrets causing a miscarriage and bringing about her increased personal suffering as a result—because the selfsame spell will not allow Shelvon to fall pregnant a second time even for reasons of practical self-preservation, as the spell counts this as coercion—Shelvon would’ve had agency over her body and her life. She would’ve chosen to risk abuse for the sake of reproductive autonomy; or, conversely, would’ve chosen the pragmatic option of having this one child, but no others after—but either way, it would’ve been her choice, not one that was foisted on her by someone else’s magic.
The apex of this terrible approach to consent is reached when we learn that, although Shelvon has clearly been subjected to marital rape at Delnamal’s hands, as she’s neither wanted to sleep with him nor been in a position to refuse, she doesn’t have the women’s Kai that comes from being raped, because she never actually told him no. This is effectively confirmed during a conversation on page 329 between Tynthanal—who apparently figured out what women’s Kai was all by himself—and Alys:
Alys thought of Shelvon and her loveless marriage with Delnamal. “Did you ever look at Shelvon?” she asked, then squirmed uncomfortably at her own question, as it seemed an invasion of her sister-in-law’s privacy.
Tynthanal shook his head. “I didn’t, but I suspect it would never have occurred to her to refuse her husband’s advances, which, from what Chanlix and I have been able to piece together, is necessary for the generation of Kai.”
Again, this mutual piecing together of research is never shown on the page—it’s something we learn of from this conversation without ever seeing it in action. But as it’s subsequently revealed that, as with Brynna’s spell, Kai requires the same willing, non-coercive consent of the woman in question in order to work—that is, the Kai-holder has to personally wish harm on her target, just as a woman must genuinely want to fall pregnant—it feels bitterly ironic that coercive rape apparently doesn’t count as such according to the exact same magic. It’s wholly inconsistent in the most backward way. And this is why, I would argue, The Women’s War fails on a fundamental level to understand consent. Because the magical worldbuilding lacks this more complex understanding of how power dynamics, survival, and coercion play into choice and action, we’re left with a situation where marital rape isn’t classed as rape, but forcing a woman who’s pregnant out of necessity to miscarry, regardless of whether that makes her life harder, is classed as freedom of choice. This latter point is made clear on page 304, as Alys and Jinnell discuss the implications of Brynna’s spell:
“Tynthanal tells me there is an abundance of rare feminine elements at this Well. Maybe there are elements there I can’t get here. Ones I can use to craft a spell to help Shelvon conceive despite my mother’s spell.”
“And thereby take away a woman’s right to choose once more. The beauty of Grandmother’s spell is that no one can force a woman to be ‘willing’. Not even the woman herself. If the whole thing can be undermined by another spell, then everything Grandmother did was for nothing.”
And this. I just.
I am angry. I am so goddamn angry about this aspect of the book, because while the words “pro-choice feminism” are hardly going to appear in the text, the use of the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” is signalling pretty clearly to the reader that this argument is inspired by pro-choice feminism, except that THIS IS THE LITERAL OPPOSITE OF THAT, OH MY GOD, THAT IS NOT WHAT THIS IS. The women who miscarry as a result of Brynna’s spell aren’t making an informed decision to end their pregnancies; they’re having the choice made for them by a magical interdiction over which they have no say, despite the fact that, in many cases, the miscarriage itself—or the consequences of miscarrying—might be more dangerous and unwanted than the pregnancy. Without wanting to make this overly personal, I mentioned Savita Halappanavar above because, when my own son was born in 2013, I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my time in hospital thinking about her death, as I, like her, was PROMs—meaning, your waters break before your labour starts, putting mother and child at dangerous risk of infection, as the amniotic fluid is the barrier to that happening. The only difference was, my pregnancy was term where hers was not: like Savita, I contracted an infection, but whereas I’m still alive six years later, my health still compromised as a result, she died in agony.
For this reason, I cannot and will not pump my fist for any narrative device which subjects women to potentially fatal miscarriages and defends it as a woman’s right to choose, in a context where that claim is never meaningfully critiqued or held accountable by the narrative. I’ll say it again: if an individual woman can’t determine her own willingness to be pregnant—even for pragmatic reasons—because of strictures laid down by someone else—even another woman acting for the greater good—then IT IS NOT PRO-CHOICE FEMINISM. Is it really setting such a high bar, to have wanted Glass to include some real engagement with the core feminist conceit of her novel within its pages? I’m not even saying that Brynna’s spell needed to be different in order for the book to work: what angers me is presenting as a pro-choice argument something which is not that, however pro-choice-adjacent it might be, and then failing to engage with the dissonance and its complicated morality. As with the romance between Chanlix and Tynthanal, there’s a wealth of missed opportunity in this aspect of the narrative, because outside of the specific context of Shelvon’s miscarriage and what it means for the characters—if Shelvon can’t fall pregnant to Delnamal again, this has the domino effect of making Jinnell vulnerable to an arranged marriage to Shelvon’s father—this aspect of the spell is almost never mentioned.
In a different timeline, there’s a version of The Women’s War where common women, abigails, and noblewomen all engage in debate about whether the greater, long-term benefit to women caused by Brynna’s spell outweighs the lives of those who die or suffer from it in the short term: a real, meaty engagement with a complex, relevant topic, all conducted through the hypothetical lens of fantasy. But instead, we’ve got this trite, reductive bullshit that doesn’t care about its own implications, is focussed almost wholly on the specific problems faced by contextually privileged women, and which shies away from fully engaging with its own premise. What is the goddamn point?
And lest anyone think that expecting this level of nuance in a fantasy novel is unrealistic: a few years ago, I read a fanfic—I won’t name the fandom or the author—where Character A had been forcibly married to Character B, an abuser who was trying to get A pregnant. Unbeknownst to A, their worried relatives were slipping them contraceptives, and when B found out, they assumed that A was in on it and responded not only with physical violence, but by further restricting their movements. Various other things happened after that, but at the end of the story, when A was safe, there was an incredibly powerful scene where they castigated their concerned relatives for drugging them: they had been terrified by not knowing what was happening, wondering if they were infertile, and then being subjected to further abuse for something they hadn’t done, all because the relatives had made the decision on A’s behalf that it was “safer” for them not to know. That story has stuck with me ever since, and it resonates powerfully with me now as an example of an author approaching issues of consent, pregnancy, and bodily autonomy with more skill and thoughtfulness than Glass has shown in The Women’s War.
But then, for a book that’s ostensibly about female agency, The Women’s War is frustratingly content to give moments of key epiphany or decision-making to men. When the abigails are sent into exile to what’s meant to be the Wasteland, it’s Tynthanal, not Chanlix, who notices the profusion of elements that betray the existence of the new Well, and who takes it upon himself to exceed his mandate and lead the women there. In text, it reads as though Glass is trying to give Chanlix—and, by extension, the reader—a reason to trust Tynthanal beyond his being attractive and clearing the very low bar of thinking rape is bad: see, he’s a Good Male Feminist Ally™! He’s helping! But this doesn’t explain why Chanlix, also a strong magic user, didn’t notice the Well until Tynthanal pointed it out, especially as it gives out mostly feminine elements—and as the Well itself is another accidental byproduct of Brynna’s spell, rather than a deliberate consequence, this doubly robs the female characters of agency. Even in comparatively small moments, such as the scene where Tynthanal encourages Chanlix to take off her wimple because of the heat, it’s frustrating to wonder why she can’t simply make the decision for herself; why the story feels the need to have Tynthanal state the obvious as though it’s a revelation.
Nor is this problem confined to Chanlix alone. When Ellin’s relatives are killed by the earthquake, it’s her steward, Semsulin, who tells her that she’s a candidate to become queen, when it would’ve been equally plausible—and far more narratively powerful—for Ellin to propose the suggestion to him. This is mirrored later with Alys, when Tynthanal is the one to suggest she become the sovereign of the independent principality of Women’s Well (and again, because there is no class analysis in this novel, nobody suggests that they forego having an aristocracy for something more egalitarian, even to laugh at the very idea as nonsense because of their ingrained cultural sensibilities). And as the only male character granted POV sections is Delnamal—sections which are chillingly effective, I’ll grant, as he’s a plausibly loathsome character—it stands out in contrast to these lost moments of female agency that we’re never shown why men like Tynthanal, Zarsha, and even Graesan are so much more enlightened than their fellows. References to toxic masculinity are sprinkled through the novel—Alys’s young son not being allowed to cry or hug her in public; the unmanliness of riding a cheval, a magically animated horsebot, as opposed to a real animal—but are never cited as part of any reason why these good men, too, might be dissatisfied with the way things are.
There are other, more individual niggles that bothered me throughout the book—both Delnamal and another man have their weight mocked as a way to emphasize how gross and unpleasant they are; Jinnell effectively sacrifices herself to save her little brother, who was only in trouble by his own actions; the not-so-subtle positioning of Alys’s guardsman, Falcor, as her future love interest, because we clearly need more unironic straight romances in a series about the evils of compulsory heterosexual marriage—but at this point, I can’t muster up the energy to detail them all. Sufficed to say, I was frustrated by The Women’s War at every conceivable level, and while I won’t rule out the possibility that Glass learns from this book and does better in the future, I sure as hell won’t be holding my breath to find out.