Tagged feminist

Book Review: Brother’s Price & Waffling on the Heartbreak of Feminist Genre Authors

Posted by Gail Carriger

´I’m not quite sure how to put this, Gentle Reader, so I’ll just dive in.

Cupcakes

There are books you read because you want to, silly fluffy books. Perhaps these are not taken very seriously or considered great works. I like to think of these as cupcake books, only without the caloric guilt. This is what I mostly read. It’s what I like to read. I want to be entertained and happy. I forgive them for being not well written and turn giddy with delight when they are.

A book that transports me, and entertains, has beautiful prose, and leaves me happy at the end? I have been known to bounce.

Stew

There are books you read because you should and yet you still manage to enjoy them. These are the nutritious books, perhaps a bit chewy, perhaps a bit hard to work through, perhaps not exactly satisfying a whim or desire but enjoyable enough. They are likely good for you – these stew books. I put Austen, Gaskell, and Dickens into this category. I don’t read them for true pleasure or desire, I rarely reread, but I’ve also never thrown one across the room in disgust, either.

Sprouts

And there are books you read because you must, for research or for school, books that break librarians’ hearts because they turn kids off reading. These may be beautifully written but they are too much work, or too soul destroying, or simply not fun. (I’m looking at you, Grapes of Wrath, Magic Mountain, Heart of Darkness.) These are the Brussels sprouts of books. Or the cherry cough syrup. Or whatever that thing is that you were forced to eat as a kid and never got over.

And yes, I totally understand, some people love Brussels sprouts. I am not one of those people.

I took a course in European Bildungsroman as an undergrad. I remember reading a note that my excellent teacher jotted down at the top of one of my more vitriolic essays.

“I am troubled by your anger at these books.”

They do make me angry. I can understand why people find them worthy. I can even get if you enjoy reading them. But they frustrate me with prose that may be amazing, but I don’t like it, with disjointed plots or lost pacing, and the characters hurt me with their stupid. That, for me, is book failure.

And because reading is my favorite thing in the whole world, it feels like betrayal.

I throw these books across the room. I curse at them because out there are amazing cupcake works of art that no one knows about because they are too much fun, or too fluffy, or not thought of as healthy or worthy by the powers at be.

And perhaps I’ve learned since then that this is all wrapped up with a history of dominance by male authors, and a preponderance of male critics, and ivory tower standards on what is good enough to be literary, and glass ceilings inside pages. And yeah I learned about the Gothics, and the origin of genre, and the reason why SF/F/Romance so badly mistreated.

But I can’t forgive these famous literary works for being bad. Bad at entertaining me. Bad at making me happy.

All this brings me around to the fact that…

 

I had a sinking suspicion that Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price was going to be a sprout. Unexpectedly, it turned into a highly enjoyable stew. One of those lamb ones, full of veg and thick gravy and a nice rosemary roll on the side.

Formative Feminist Genre Authors

You see, I hate to admit this, but Andre Norton and Ursula K. LeGuin were sprouts for me. I tried, I really did. But I’ve never been able to make more than one or two paragraphs into any Norton book. (I just feel like she’d be one of those people at a party. You know those people? So much cleverer than you and think that’s enough to excuse them the basic human decency of actual manners.) Her writing feels like it’s talking down to me. With LeGuin, I managed Left Hand of Darkness, and a few of her shorter pieces, but only just. She’s utterly exhausting, and really no fun at all. I wouldn’t recommend her, that’s for certain.

Perhaps they were victims of their times. But I’m tempted to think they were trying to compete on a not-so-level playing field with the male authors of their day, for a mostly male audience, and to be taken seriously by male critics. Intentionally? Probably not. Presumably, it worked out in the end, I mean sometimes people are actually told to read their books in school! Female genre authors! Lands sake, what is this world coming to?

But, I digress. Where was I?

On the less well known at a cocktail party in New York front, there are authors like Sheri S. Tepper. Gate To Women’s Country broke my heart and changed my whole life, but I don’t reach for it in times of comfort. I rarely reread it. I recommend it. I think it’s important. It’s very healthy stew. But chewy, a lot of work to read. Good work and necessary. It leaves your brain sore and satisfied, but still work.

And usually, right about then, at the bar at a convention, a woman I respect will bring up Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price.

Which is why I chose to read it.

Oh, Did You Come Here for a Book Review?

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, still a stew and not a cupcake, but I liked it. Spencer had a much more breezy voice than I expected. It was easier jump into and read than I thought it would be. Yes she suffers a little from info-dump-itice, but I’m a skim reader so it doesn’t bother me as much as it might others.

The story was fun. I liked the action scenes. The world-building was spot on. Perhaps the setting wasn’t hugely original (kind of alternate Old West) but I was absolutely riveted by the shifted social structure.

Would this have been a good book if the genders were reversed? No. It would have been one step removed from an early regency romance, only with less romance. But that’s not the point.

After waffling on about how much I dislike books that are nothing but allegory and a pointed prose, I don’t quite understand why I forgave Brother’s Price so much. But I enjoyed reading it. I was fascinated by how Spencer approached concepts. I loved her cheeky jabs on our own social structures and morays.

Did I think the love interests were well developed? Not at all. But this could be a factor of the main character’s youth. Or perhaps the casual way he falls in love is itself a comment on having to marry so many. Is Spencer  shifting the very concept of romance given a sister-wife situation?

One of my favorite lines was this:

“The very nature of intercourse—an act to produce a pregnancy—and the risks to the woman’s health as such, I think will always make the choice of yes or no the woman’s.”

Spoken by an older woman to a younger man in a condescending, yet loving manner. It’s so perfectly pin pointed to eviscerate social darwinism, and eugenics, and claims of biological determinism that have been used throughout history to argue that biological differences mandate the social superiority of males.

These parts of the book made me happy. Not in a cupcake way. But in a “heh-heh, I see what you’re doing there, we are in on a mutual joke at the expense of the dominant paradigm” kind of way.

I think some would argue that Spencer is a little heavy handed with this kind of commentary. That she hits you over the head with it. But as the world is showing us (daily) how oblivious people continue to be, I forgive her this. We clearly need to be hit over the head.

Conclusions?

Was this a good book? Yes it was.

Did I enjoy reading it? Yes I did.

Will I reach for it in times of need for comfort? Probably not.

Should you read it? Yes.

More importantly, this is the kind of book that should be taught in schools. Because it manages to make its point with ease and still be fun to read. Because it would spark very interesting discussions. Because it is not work but it is still rewarding. Because it is holding up a mirror and showing us all our own ugliness, but isn’t cruel about it, just makes the point that we might want to keep struggling to improve. That we might want to consider our own nature as people in a collected group, our definitions of what it means to be wife or husband, sister or brother in our own society, and how that balances against our understanding of human decency.

Okay, I’ve waffled enough.

More on Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price.

{Gail’s monthly read along for Feb is Black Dog Blues by Rhys Ford.}

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