Part 1 covered Book 1 (Walk to the End of the World) and Book 2 (Motherlines)
Book 3 – The Furies (1994)
For some, this is the least popular book, for others, the most powerful of the series. Charnas has said in interviews, this was the most difficult book of the series to write, and took the longest (over 15 years):
“One reason THE FURIES took so long to write was that I wanted to skip over the harshest part — an actual war, or more properly a slave-revolt, of the “fems” against their male masters — and go right to a better life for all;….. just as so many women with feminist ideals wish desperately to be able to “skip” the harshest part in reality, the part where we seem to have the most to lose, and the most to suffer, the part where we demand full recognition of our humanity, and do whatever it takes to get it.”
This novel opens in the Grasslands, where Motherlines finished. Sorrel, Alldera’s teenage daughter, is away from camp on her maiden raid with one of her share-mothers, Sheel. On their return to celebrate Sorrel’s coming-of-age as a Woman of the Grasslands, they find the Riding Women camp in uproar as the Women learn that Alldera Holdfaster has led the Free Fems, as an army of female warriors on horseback, to free the other fem slaves in the Holdfast, and take back their own homeland. Sheel and a handful of her friends chase after the Free Fems, promising to bring them back to the Grasslands.
For many years in Motherlines, the Free Fems had fantasised and talked about taking their homeland territories back for themselves, but for most it was just talk. Unlike the Riding Women, the Free Fems could not have children without men, and there had been no new escaped fems crossing from the Holdfast in more than 15 years since Alldera’s escape. After so many years, few of childbearing age were left, and their numbers were slowly dwindling as they all aged. Also, attached they had become to their adopted lifestyle in the Grasslands and their cousin Women — for all its peace and freedom, they still felt they were ‘Exiles’ ultimately destined to die out as strangers in a foreign land, far away from their own Homeland.
With superior weapons, they do win the war, but at a very high cost. The women’s victory in battle leaves them nearly, but not quite, as bloodthirsty as their former masters. Some of the slave fems do not want to be freed, and Alldera’s leadership is always in jeopardy, in part because she decides to protect Eykar, the man who helped her escape 15 years earlier, (and a young eunuch, Setteo the Seer). But also partly due to her refusal to endorse the cruelty of the growing MoonWomen religious cult of the Free Fems.
For as Alldera asks, “Who can make a new, whole self without spending the ocean of old poisons first?” That spending of an “ocean of poisons” is vicious and wrenching.
Charnas does not shy away from conflict, and through her brilliant rendition of believable, if flawed characters, some damaged beyond repair, Charnas explores the politics of retribution as the former slaves become masters themselves with the power to dispense justice, merciful or cruel.
In the aftermath of a bloody victory, the Free Fems and the NewFree soon find their Enemy is now dissension among themselves. Sheel and the other Riding Women who join Alldera’s Free Fems, while having little empathy for the now enslaved males, are still horrified by the extremes of violence given to them. Some cannot wait to get back home to the Grasslands and leave the Holdfast and its sorrows behind them. Others are sucked in by the developing culture and Sheel hopes the Riding Women will never be attracted to a lifestyle of maintaining slaves.
Alldera’s leadership in battle is one thing, but in the aftermath, her leadership is challenged by others. There is conflict between the older Free Fems arriving as the army, and the ‘Newly Free’. Alldera is questioned, her behaviour, her opinions and decisions challenged, every little trivial thing noted and remarked upon, and factions arise. Betrayal ensues, as the most anti-male faction believes Alldera has become “too soft” towards the men, and an attempt is made to assassinate Alldera, under the leadership of Daya, her one-time lover and closest friend.
Again, as in all the earlier books, the theme that it is ultimately how women relate to other women – not men – that underpins liberation. Charnas’s technique of having her characters work slowly, painfully and believably through the conflicts allows a way of avoiding the most common pitfall that a blunt in-your-face political story like this often results in, ie avoiding all potential conflicts, and moving immediately to the “happy-ever-after” utopian ending.
On the writing side, I found this third installment, the fastest, most action-packed, a breathtakingly horrific but brutally honest ride through the final great showdown of humanity – the war of the sexes – the ultimate war to end all wars. The conflict between “peace at any price” or “freedom at any cost” attitudes of the women – splitting into not two but multiple factions. The uncontrollable rage of some characters, the apathy and neutrality of others, the despair of personal powerlessness and just plain simple physical and emotional exhaustion of others, are all drawn with empathy and honesty by Charnas.
But for those who like happy-ever-after utopian endings, there will be some disappointment, but while there is still no firm resolution to “what do we do about the men?” there is still hope, surprises, and some twists as Alldera’s “ocean of poisons” is eventually spent and exhausted.
Book 4 – The Conqueror’s Child (1999)
This last book, also winning major awards, starts 6 years later after the war. Where the previous book looks at ‘What about the men?” – this last book looks at ‘What about the kids?’ For this was one part of the reason for the Free Fems return to the Holdfast. For if there is to be a future world, there must be some children. And for the Holdfast women, they are stuck with reproducing with the input of males. Pathenogenesis was not an option. For some women this made no difference, they thought nothing of the race dying out in killing of all the men.
This book is told through the eyes of Sorrel, Alldera’s young adult daughter now in her 20s who was left behind in the Grasslands as a teenager, when Alldera and Sheel left for the war. Early in the war told in the Furies, one of the NewFree was pregnant and requested Sheel for a “Free Name”, and Sheel encouraged her to birth her baby in the Grasslands. The NewFree Fem did return to the Grasslands but died in childbirth with a son. While the Riding Women cared for the boy, they weren’t too enthusiastic about it – suffering from neglect, being ignored, and then he was also ultimately rejected by the all-female ‘childpack’ in the Grasslands.
Sorrel showed interest in the boy-child, and felt some kinship with his loneliness, like him being “unique” and “different” among the Women of the Motherlines. Sorrel is also a very angry young woman, with all the classic adolescent-style anger and hurt around her personal issues with her mothers’ abandonment of her, and her own inability to have a child parthenogenetically like the Riding Women. On an impulse one day, with the boy, Veree, she sets off for the Holdfast to confront her birth-mother, Alldera and share-mother Sheel, as she says snarkily later in the book “I wanted to ask them what to do with an abandoned child, since they have so much experience with abandoning children”.
Seems nobody knows what to do with children in the Holdfast, especially not with boys.
Arriving in the Holdfast, Sorrel discovers that the women of the Holdfast have partly mirrored the evil they’d previously conquered, holding men as slaves. Many want to change this, Alldera among them, but are still quarelling and considering alternatives, mulling over options, and thinking over the right way(s) to rebuild their society in the aftermath of the war. Especially as none of the fems had any experience in mothering, communally or otherwise. The Holdfast had never practised any form of monogamy either – same-sex partnerships were fluid and non-committal for both sexes. After the initial euphoria of winning the war wore off – the attitude left was one of deep confusion and puzzlement, as in “now what the &*^% do we do?” How do we prevent men from rising up and reversing it again in the future, without having to spend energy in keeping them under control? For as some women found, being a prison-warder is hard work. How do we relate to boy-children? How should we relate to them? Despite betrayals and other setbacks, confronting the concept of “fatherhood” as an alien idea, Sorrel slowly grows up and builds her own life beyond the long shadows of her famous Alldera Conqueror mother, but the intractable problem remains: how to arrange reproduction, the necessary care of children, and the role of men (if any).
Meanwhile Alldera has been visiting an outlying town of the Holdfast which had already developed a solution which seems to ‘work’ for them. The Bayo Free fems allow their males to sire no more than two children in adolescence, after which they must be ‘gelded’.
Over all of this, any prospects for social reform that both sexes could possibly live with in peace for the sake of future generations, are seriously threatened by the return of Servan D’Layo – remember him from the first book? Servan and Eykar Bek were the two men travelling with Alldera in the first book, and since both raped her within a day of each other, either could be Sorrel’s bio-father. In the Furies, we learned he had left some years before with a band of men, on an exploratory expedition to the wild northlands. A charismatic but vicious man, he becomes known as the Sunbear, (foretold by Setteo the mad eunuch, as part of the slave men’s religious cult).
But, to add another twist, he also brings with him, descendants of a surviving post-holocaust Black community that had not been known before. A community which had survived with traditional marriage and nuclear families, without the sexual brutality of the Holdfast. Servan had killed all the adult men and adolescent boys, enslaving the women and some of the children to return to the Holdfast. To say he was not impressed that the Holdfast fems had rebelled and won a war, is an understatement, as he sets about reversing it.
In this final chapter, there is still much of the darkness, pain and brutal honesty found in the previous books, but there is also hope as it becomes clear that a lasting peace, based on true freedom of choice, is not only possible, but necessary.
Avoiding cliches, but continuing to surprise and delight with plot twists and thought-provoking tangents, Charnas’s Conqueror’s Child completes an epic history of the war of the sexes.