A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer is one of several novels that I have read over the past few years that center around fictional matriarchies. I had heard about this book and decided to read it as I find the concept behind these stories interesting. I also find it worthwhile to compare the different worlds that these various writers have created. One thing that I find intriguing about these books is that they allow authors to explore issues around gender and culture in unique ways. This was written in 2005.
I found this novel to be a very good depiction of an alternate world. It had an engaging plot. It has interesting and occasionally complex characters. I disagree with one the book’s primarily underlying themes, which is based on what many are calling blank slatism. However, it is all presented in a thoughtful way. I am OK if an author has ideas that I disagree with. In general, I do not think that this mars a novel unless the ideas are presented in too heavy handed a way or if they are presented unfairly.
The book seems to take place in an alternate reality Earth. Technological progress appears to be on the level if the late Eighteenth Century. Most governments are monarchies. Governments have precarious control of the countryside as bandits and rebels are common. The key difference from our world is that female births outnumber male births by about ten to one. Thus, families try to have a lot of children in order to produce some males. Family structures are completely different from our world. Each man is married to a family of multiple sisters. Usually a lot of sisters as families are large. When a boy comes of age, he is traded or sold by his family, to another family in exchange for another man who will be a husband to the family trading a brother. Men have almost no legal rights. The world is complex however. Some men have a say on who they will marry and some do not. Some men are treated as near slaves, others treated as inferiors in a benign way, others are treated with reverence and have positions of power within families.
The protagonist of the book is Jerin Whistler. His family is descended of heroic military women and still maintains martial qualities. They are mostly ethical women and Jerin is often treated as a near equal. However, economics and politics between families are complex and he fears that he will be traded to a family that he considers low class and who are violent.
There is a dramatic change of events when the Whistlers rescue and shelter a member of the royal family being pursued by rebels. As the royal family and the Whistlers begin to mix, Jerin and royal family member Princess Ren begin to fall in love. Much of the balance of the novel involves the maneuverings of Princess Ren to arrange a marriage with Jerin over some social objections, and the kidnapping of Jerin by a rebel family who want to forcibly marry him for political reasons. There is also a missing royal sister as well as some past crimes of a deceased royal husband dredged up. It eventually all ties together. The plot is actually very engaging.
The strength of this novel lies in its world building. Spencer has fashioned a detailed and complex society here. Her universe is full of shades of grey. As mentioned above, the status of the men in the book is complicated. Many of the women characters, particularly the Whistlers and the royal sisters want to treat Jaren fairly, but sometimes political, social and economic concerns put them in positions where that is difficult or impossible. Some men, who are disadvantaged by the society’s structure, find ways to thrive and even exploit women. I think that this is a realistic refection of out real world with some of the social conventions flipped over. The author put a lot of thought around how the different standards of society might be turned around.
At one point the royal sisters along with the Whistler sisters are confronted by the body of a raped and murdered man. They react with much more revulsion and then they react to dead women,
They’ve killed a man.” It was not enough warning. Ren gagged at what they showed her. Arms tied behind his back, his trousers down around his ankles to expose scrawny hairy legs, paunchy stomach—no dignity afforded him in death... Blood had clotted on his face and nose, had pooled in his eyes, and his ears…Her women had uncovered the grave, and they stood silent, staring at the body. The younger Whistlers hung back, their fierceness stripped by their shock, unable to even look at the man. Her eyes furious, Eldest knelt beside the corpse and covered his nakedness with her coat. Ren didn’t want to look at the body, even with it decently covered.
In the real world, this is reflective of how people will sometimes react more strongly and differently when atrocities are perpetuated against women. I should mention that most of the novel is not this grim. While the book contains some violence and brutality, it is mostly a mix of world building, adventure, social commentary and romance.
I mentioned that an underling theme of the book seems to be blank slatist. When it comes to gender, this view is that there is no difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women that is not caused by culture.
In this book the women are much more violent then the men. Many women are sexually aggressive. A significant minority of women act like sexual predators who exploit and harass men sexually. The men tend to be coy and generally want to save themselves by avoiding sexual relations before marriage. Women tend to dress plainly where the men adorn themselves elaborately.
I think that when it comes to many of these role reversals, while presented in an interesting way that the author thought about, the author gets some things wrong. Evolutionary psychology, as well as the fact that certain differences between the genders manifest themselves universally across cultures and time, indicate that there are biological differences at the root of some of these behavior in the real world. Thus, it seems implausible that women would be so sexually aggressive while men behaved so modestly in this world. The same is true of violence. There are many good sources for this. I would point folks to books such as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which I wrote about here, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which I wrote about here, Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox, which I wrote about here or Steve Stewart-Williams's, The Ape that Understood the Universe, which I wrote about here. This is not to say that biology and genes are everything. If there was a situation where women outnumbered male births ten to one, then there would be some general differences in behavior, but I do not think that they would manifest themselves as a complete flipping of gender roles.
I always feel that I must mention, that just because there is a biological difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women, this says nothing about individuals. The differences only manifest themselves in averages when large groups are compared. Some women are violent. Most men are not violent. Some women are promiscuous. This is all similar to the general tendency for men to be taller than women on average. Regardless of that fact, some women are tall, some men are short. We cannot say anything about individuals. Historically, some have used these average differences have been used as an excuse for sexism. Serotyping individuals is illogical and unethical.
I thought that this was a very good book. It is the sort of world building science fiction that relies upon playing with social conventions. It does that well. The characters are not super complex but they show some nuance and are interesting. Jerin is particularly well done. The plot kept my interest. The universe that is created here is very well crafted. My quibbles about blank slatism did not distract from the book for me. I recommend this one to fans of social science fiction as well as people who like fiction about gender.
Other posts about fictional matriarchies.