… but really, that’s on me. I picked The Power out of a quick list of available novels from my library’s ebook app, after giving the synopsis a casual perusal. I thought I was checking out a low-stakes feminist YA fantasy that I could burn through in a couple of hours before moving on with myself. As is turns out, not every book featuring teenage girls and supernatural powers is a lighthearted fantasy romp with a conclusion that ties everything up with a convenient and satisfactory denouement. There is very little romping in The Power, it was not at all lighthearted, and a week after reading the book, the depression is still sitting with me. Oops.
In the world of The Power, teenage girls suddenly start developing electric-based abilities that are capable of hurting or even killing another person. This power can be awakened in older women, too. This development is explained through as the long-term effects of certain chemical agents leading to the development of vestigial organs in the collarbones called skeins. The book traces the emergence and effects of this phenomenon through multiple point-of-view characters, including several teenage girls, an older female politician, and a young male journalist, over the course of several years. Please note: the presence of teenage girls does not make this story safe for children.
Early in the story, young women are using the power to protect themselves from sexual assault, push back against patriarchal institutions, and topple oppressive governments like Saudi Arabia. There were a lot of “Hell, yeah!” moments. Even though the POV protagonists were deeply flawed individuals, it was easy for me to assume (still somewhat operating under my YA misapprehensions) that the protagonists would overcome these flaws and use their power (there’s that word again) to create a better, more equitable future. It is to the book’s credit that it doesn’t fall into those sort of easy feminist platitudes. As time passes, these empowered women move beyond correcting for past injustices and imbalances, and become the perpetrators of their own gendered violence against the men, because they are the ones with the power now (are you sensing a theme?)
My big complaint about the book is the unmitigated bleakness, especially in the second half of the story. Not to get too far into spoiler territory, but this book does not have a happy ending. Maybe I wouldn’t be dwelling on it so much, if I hadn’t gone into the book expecting one. I kept waiting for characters to do the right thing in ambiguous situations, or pull off a miracle against all odds, but no such luck.
The real horror of The Power comes from the fact that all the injustices perpetrated by women in the book are exactly the same injustices that men perpetuate in the present day. This book contains a truly horrific scene of female-on-male rape, but it is made even more horrific by the knowledge that this exact gendered abuse happens all the time to women in the real world. Sexual coercion, violence, religious extremism, and corrupt politicians are not limited to speculative fiction. Alderman is simply holding a mirror up to preexisting social constructs, and everything about this book hammers home how deeply, deeply shitty the real world can be. I think that is the part that is sticking with me the most.
I can’t bring myself to give this a five-star rating, because I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. I wasn’t prepared for it, so I feel somewhat betrayed by the narrative. That said, I would recommend this book, since the themes are certainly important and thought-provoking, the writing is engaging, and the story sucks you in. Just be prepared for what’s waiting on the other side.
(FYI, this is a test post before CBR12 kicks off, but I figure I might as well post a review while I am at it)