Set post a nuclear war that wiped out most of the population. Most of the action takes place in Marthasville, a town that is divided into two parts: a garrison of men and Women’s Country. Life in the garrison consists of training, drinking, literal penis worship, and going to war with other garrisons. Life in the Women’s Country consists of a lifelong dedication to learning, farming, building, herding, dancing, acting, weaving, etc. Life, basically. Books, crafts, and more than cursory healing knowledge is forbidden for men.
Twice a year there are month long festivals where men and women mingle freely and boys under 15 go home to visit. This is when women become pregnant. If they have a boy at the age of 5 that boy is taken to live in the garrison until age 15 when they must decide to stay or to go back to Women’s Country, though they have until age 25, when they become a full warrior, to finally decide. If men choose to return to Women’s Country, they become servitors, allowed to learn a trade and to live among the women.
Women’s Country is ruled by a council. Unbeknownst to nearly everybody, they are running a selective breeding program. The men who choose to return to Women’s Country (and therefore have repudiated violence) are the actual fathers of all the children. During the medical exam that is required before an adult(ish) woman can participate in the fucking part of the festivals, they are either given a birth control implant that they’re told is something else or are artificially inseminated with a servitor’s sperm.
The selective breeding program seems to be working as a couple of generations ago 5% of boys returned to Women’s Country and now 20% do. The women of the council believe they are breeding aggression and violence out of the population.
So, yeah. Did not like that. Didn’t like the gender essentialism, didn’t like the idea of breeding people into compliance, didn’t like women not being allowed to make informed choices about their reproductive health. Didn’t like how very White Feminist the whole thing was. Also, just didn’t let the writing. It was a very dull book, generally speaking, and the framing device didn’t leave a lot of tension in the narrative. It also didn’t help that I felt like I’ve read this book before. Being a fan of feminist speculative fiction, I’ve read a fair amount of it and this book was very similar to a lot of it. It reminded me in particular of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Matter of Seggri (though the novel was published several years prior to the short story) and didn’t come off well in comparison, in my opinion.
So if you’re a feminist speculative fiction completest, by all means, give it a whirl. Just don’t expect a very exciting ride.