SLAVE AND THE FREE : (Holdfast Part 1)

 Books in review; Some thoughts on the story of a speculative ultimate ‘War to End All Wars’
the War Between the Sexes.The Holdfast Chronicles, is an epic saga of a post-apocalyptic future told in four sequential novels written by Suzy McKee Charnas:



(a 90’s reprint omnibus edition of Books 1 and 2)

Book 1 – Walk to the End of the World

The story opens with an introduction to the post-apocalyptic society of the strictly sex-segregated Holdfast, and three main male characters, Captain Kelmz, Eykar Bek and Servan D’Layo. For much of this first book, we see Holdfast society entirely through the eyes of these men.  ie. Through the ‘Male Gaze’. As a literary technique this is enormously powerful, as we see the horrific conditions of the enslaved ‘fems’ only in very brief background glimpses, in occasional throw-away lines like having the men mentioning in passing as an aside, the awful smell of witch-burnings in the public squares, all spoken of through the voices of male casual indifference.  For the bulk of their conversations are about their personal issues, and the current male-stream politics and the growing feelings of revolt of the ‘Juniors’ (young men) towards the ‘Seniors’ (old men).

The relationships between these men, and the main plot following the men and male-stream politics of the Holdfast, is multi-faceted, complex and not stereotyped at all.  Charnas’s great skill lies in her development of believable complex characters, which invites reader’s sympathy (particularly for the older Captain Kelmz) while inserting occasional and brief cold-shower slaps in our faces with the blood-chilling casual violent misogyny towards the invisible ‘fems’, and the complete indifference of the men to the fems.

One of the most powerful feminist themes in this section, is the demonstration of just how deeply misogynist even the nicest of guys can be, through the casual indifference of the ‘Male Gaze’.

Servan is drawn as a street-wise petty criminal, a rogue, openly rebellious against Senior authority, whereas Eykar is portrayed as an intellectual, a reader, a thinker, constantly questioning everything, including the beliefs he was raised with, the beliefs of the Seniors who rule them, and other Juniors. Both young men had been exiled in different ways as their punishment for a boyhood crime they committed.   Eykar escapes his punishment exile and whilst on the run, enlists his boyhood friend Servan’s help in finding Eykar’s ‘father’.  Parentage is deliberately kept unknown in the Holdfast, but Eykar’s bio-father had marked the fem who bore his son.  Servan suggests they go to the old fems, the ‘Matris’, for information and also have friendly Captain Kelmz to help them.

The Matris agree to provide considerable help to Kelmz, Eykar and Servan, and in return for their help, the Matris request that the men take along a young fem, Alldera, to act as a carry-fem (or pack-animal) on their trek across the Holdfast.  The story continues with Servan and Eykar’s travelling party on the run from the authorities, and with the whole Holdfast region on the verge of major famine and civil unrest, with war brewing between the two main cities.

As becomes a central key theme throughout the later books, the relationships between women are the most interesting, complex and thought-provoking of Charnas’s feminist themes.  For ultimately, it is the ways in which women relate and communicate with other women – (not men) – that underpins women’s liberation.

Through her complicated well-drawn characters, Charnas explores in depth issues of why women often collude in their own oppression, ignore it, deny it, endure it, or rebel against it – the central struggle between “peace at any price” and the desire for “freedom at any cost”.

In the second half of the book as the party of men race across the Holdfast with war brewing – through Alldera, the young fem trained illegally as a runner, we learn more about the inhuman brutality of fem’s lives. We also learn why the Matris had manoeuvred Alldera to be sent along with the men, with her secret task to “Walk to the End of the World”.  Alldera’s task was to return after an absence, and provide the Matris with a false ‘message’ of hope, from the legendary mythical ‘free fems’ living outside the Holdfast. The message designed by the Matris was to encourage the slave fems to “hold on” and not revolt or cause trouble, lest they bring down much worse destruction on all fems.  One of the “peace at any price” strategies, for the rebellion of a few slave-fems brings punishment down on all fem-slaves.

Later in the story, Alldera is raped by both Servan and Eykar, but Eykar is also thrown into close quarters with Alldera and true to his incessant questioning intellectual curiosity about life, the universe and everything – he wonders about the fems – (apparently for the first time in his life).  Alldera’s deeply cynical sarcasm in response to Eykar’s naive questioning is just one facet of the author’s brilliance in characterisation, dialogue and world-building.  In his relationship with Alldera, both are drawn to an almost cautious mutual respect in some scenes, but not for long – as Eykar cries with anguish in one of their last conversations – ‘There can be never be anything but rape between us’.

Eykar, Servan and Alldera eventually reach their destination, but amongst the sudden eruption of a war, Eykar helps Alldera escape to the Wilds.

Book 2 – Motherlines

This much longer novel covers the story of the next 15 years of Alldera’s life away from the Holdfast in all-women societies. The story begins some months after the first book ended, Alldera is still alone, wandering lost in the Wilds, starving and unhappily pregnant, and is found by a late season patrol of the Riding Women – descendants of women imprisoned in an isolated laboratory who had been genetically engineered to reproduce through parthenogenetic cloning.

Alldera, being obviously pregnant is taken back to a Riding Women’s camp to birth her daughter amongst them.   We also learn of a nearby community of “free fems” – escapees from Holdfast who live in their own camp, tolerated and partially supported by the several Riding Women’s communities, but through mutual agreement, not accepted to live among them.

Several themes are explored in Motherlines.  One is the theme of ‘culture clash’ – these two all-women communities are very different from each other – and refreshingly, the Riding Women are not presented as the standard cliché of sugar-sweet fantasy lesbian utopia, so commonly found in speculative feminist fiction particularly from the 1970s.  The free-fems, all ex-slaves also have their own issues to deal with – eg the great differences between individual experience of communal slavery are also explored, through relationships between the individual characters.  These are often painful scenes, exploring the “oppression olympics’, or the ‘Heirarchy of Oppressions’ as the free-fems compare notes on differing forms of the slavery they endured in the Holdfast.

Again, Charnas’s greatest skill is in building a complex plausible world, with multiple major characters, and doesn’t shy away from exploring painful issues of conflict, jealousy, and power relationships.  Having physical freedom, doesn’t mean you can automatically throw off the chains of generations of slavery.   For the Riding Women, their lack of understanding of the free fems is sometimes hilarious, sometimes distantly compassionate, and other times even unintentionally cruel or intolerant, but always realistic – for the Riding Women have never known men or oppression, and struggle (and sometimes fail spectacularly) to ever understand such lives as the free-fems have led.

Alldera is initially taken in to the Riding Women’s community, where she bears her daughter.  For Alldera, this is a major, HUGE, culture shock.  In the Holdfast children are removed from all mothers soon after birth, and she struggles with the alien concept of ‘mothering’, and of co-mothering in groups as the Riding Women traditionally do.    It is also a difficult period for the Riding Women, with clashes of individual personality, sub-group (individual clone Motherlines) and value-systems both within each of the two communities, and between the two women’s communities.  Although Alldera tries during these years to adapt to the world of the Riding Women and to bond with her co-mothers,  she ultimately leaves for the ‘free fem’ camp when her toddler daughter is old enough to leave the co-mothers’ tent, to join the Riding Women’s community “childpack”.

At the free fem camp, Alldera unfortunately still finds herself an ‘outsider ‘– hoping to find a community in which to belong as an ex-slave of the Holdfast, her years amongst the Riding Women have still changed her, and she is impatient, angered but mostly deeply grieved by the free-fems petty internal fights.  Having known no other way, the free-fems have loosely modelled their own community on the vicious male heirarchies and power relationships of the Holdfast.  Alldera is almost permanently crippled in a vicious attack when she tries to leave the camp, to strike out on her own.  The free fems do work through a number of issues as events unfold and time passes. Sometimes deeply painful, shocking, sometimes hilariously funny, but through long dialogues and scenes readers are drawn into empathising with these differently damaged women through a slow, healing process.

Alldera eventually leaves the free-fems and wanders alone for some years – on her own personal ‘Journey’, as well as the book following in-depth the lives of a number of other major characters in both of the women’s communities.  Alldera teaches herself to ride, and with much adventure, including learning to fight, use weapons, raid for horses, having her daughter Sorrel reach puberty (when the original co-mothers are expected to return to help the girl transition from childpack to adulthood), Alldera is eventually accepting of, and accepted into, both the Riding Women and the Free-Fems.

Alldera ultimately decides to return to the Holdfast and fight back, and free her sister slave fems.  Most of the free fems also decide to join her – but most of the Riding Women communities, are totally opposed to the decision and even try to stop them by force.  A handful of Riding Women join the free-fems, partly out of desire for adventure, exploration and curiosity about men in general.  The book ends with the women leaving for war against the Holdfast.

As with the first book, the major theme explored in such detail here, is that ultimately, it is the ways in which women relate and communicate with other women – (not men) – that underpins women’s liberation, and finding a re/solution of the central struggle between “peace at any price” and the desire for “freedom at any cost”.

Book 3 – The Furies (The war itself) and Book 4 – The Conqueror’s Child (The aftermath) in Part 2

  1. karmarad said:

    Can’t wait to hear the summaries of the subsequent books, Rain! I look forward to reading this! Thank you for your fine summaries so far.

  2. aliyah16gurl said:

    Wow I’d love to read this book series! How fascinating.

  3. smash said:

    Nice work. These books are amazing, inspiring, and provide an alternative vision of the world. I highly recommend them!

  4. Linda said:

    Thanks, rain. I’m always on the look out for alternative fiction. If anyone has any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.

  5. smash said:

    The riding women provide an awesome vision of what a truly non-patriarchal society would look like. As you say, rain, these women have no concept of what life with male oppression is like, and so they don’t understand why the free fems live the way they do.

    It’s an interesting flip, because as women living in a patriarchy, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine what life would be like outside of this systemic oppression. Thinking about the existence of women who have difficulty imagining life within such a system is a fresh perspective.

    I also like how Charnas doesn’t show the free fems leaving their enslaved lives and immediately shedding all of their patriarchal conditioning. It’s realistic, and from the perspective of women inside the p now, it reminds us that we all experience this conditioning now to some degree. It’s not so easy to untangle ourselves!

  6. FemmeForever said:

    Oh well, 😦 This series sounds great (although I avoided the summary cause I want to enjoy books) but alas I have no money. I was all excited ’cause I found books 2-4 in my local library systems and then even more excited ’cause Slave/Free is in my local college library BUT it’s non-circulating. Damn. So no go. I guess I’ll just have to keep imagining (and longing for) female unity in action.

  7. Thanks Rain, even though I am unlikely to ever get around to reading the book, I enjoyed reading your summary and analysis.

  8. allecto said:

    I have read the first and third of this series. Rain is horrified that I read them out of order!!! I seriously need to get my hands on the other two. I can’t say I enjoyed these books, to be honest. The are incredibly well written, brilliantly characterised and realised as Rain has said above. Deeply thought out and structured, you feel like you are there, very engrossing books. At least that is how I experienced reading these. But fuck, because of this, the books are SO full on. They are sickening in many ways. The experience doesn’t end when you put the book down. The characters and the horrific realism of the books stays with you. Charnas is a truly brilliant writer. Books like these are serious gems.

  9. rainsinger said:

    I wasn’t horrified, so much as I thought you had missed out on a great deal, by reading the two books which carry the most violence, without having all of the back-stories of the relationships and herstories of all the major characters, so you wouldn’t understand what was happening between the various factions of women in Furies. Motherlines has long stretches without any of that horror, and has the most utopian scenes of life without men 🙂 Scenes of an ideal male-free world amongst the various camps of the Women of the Grasslands. But Furies and Conqueror’s Child are covered in my second part.

  10. allecto said:

    Yes, true. I do feel like a lot is missing because I have not read the other two.

  11. smash said:

    Good point Rain; those are the two most violent books. Allecto, I totally agree that these books stay with you long after you read them. I think _Motherlines_ did a good job of providing a non-patriarchal society, so I’d say that’s a good one to read if you are concerned about the violence (which was very disturbing; I agree).

  12. Linda said:

    I’m almost half way through it and I love it, rain! Thank you again. It’s incredibly validating for anyone with radfem sensibilities. I’ve just ordered the last two books. Wouldn’t they make a great film? But no, instead we have thoughtless, narrow-minded post-apocalyptic male-created shit like The Road lauded by Hollywood.

  13. rainsinger said:

    Thanks Linda 🙂 I hope I don’t put in too many spoilers! I read the entire series again every 2-3 years, ever since they were first published. I always find something *new* in them.
    Yes, ‘The Road’ is crap. (I never saw it anyway *shrug* – the blurb on the back of the rental DVD case, was enough to turn me off!).
    On the other hand, I’m the only feminist I know, who had something positive to say about Sucker Punch (2011), I think it had some strong feminist messages under the surface.

    And I am looking forward to seeing Hunger Games next week. I really enjoyed the books which I recently finished reading. Not so much ‘feminist’, but not anti-feminist/misogynistic either. Quite refreshing in a Young-Adult genre sci-fi books, and now film!

  14. allecto said:

    I liked Sucker Punch. I thought it was quite brilliant in many ways and very well filmed. I went ot see Sucker Punch for the fantasy elements. I kinda love stylistic, fantasy action with female leads. But I actually ended up hating the fanatasy sequences. I liked the first one with the sword-fighting… but I really can’t stand guns. They make for such tedious action… and there was not really any *magic* to those sequences. So I was really surprised because I actually liked the story. And the movie did not leave me frothing with rage at the misogyny! But why did the end have to be so horribly sad?

    My sister keeps telling me to read Hunger Games. I will have to do so. Would it ruin the book if I see the movie first, I wonder?

  15. rainsinger said:

    Would it ruin the book if I see the movie first, I wonder?
    Probably 🙂 You should at least read the first one. Its not that long a book, and its really a page-turner always wanting to know what happens on the next page!
    Knowing the story and ending won’t spoil the film – but knowing the story and the ending could spoil the book?

    With Sucker Punch, I only mentioned it, because nearly all the feminists’ reviews of the film I saw, totally trashed it as adolescent male eye-candy and misogynistic crap. Whereas I thought it was one of the strongest feminist films made in recent years!! Go Figure? I saw it on DVD, not the cinema, but I also didn’t like the war-fantasy sequences as a visual thing. After the first couple of war sequences, (when I *got it*) I just fast-forwarded those bits. BUT – I really (really) appreciated the metaphor of the women surviving and fighting as a team to victory in a War-Zone, every time she “danced”, and with that strong “team-bonding” theme. The ending was sad, because despite all the fantasy elements, it was still depicting realism, but it also ends on Hope – she sacrificed herself, so a Sister could get away free.

  16. Linda said:

    I can’t speak for everyone, rain, but the spoilers didn’t spoil anything for me. Thanks to menopause, the specifics of your post didn’t stay in my brain for the 12 days it took the books to arrive.

  17. kmiriam said:

    wow, I haven’t read these novels (i think I only read teh first two) for decades. I should re-read. I know you review the others but are they as strong?

  18. rainsinger said:

    @kmiriam The first two came out in the late 70s, the latter two in the 90s. I think the Furies is the strongest of the series.

  19. Cheryl said:

    @FemmeForever I just started the first book, but I had to get it through Interlibrary Loan from my public library. Maybe your library offers that? It’s great–it’s as if the whole country is your library. Good luck!

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