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.
This book brings of memories, one of which is a Star Trek N. G. episode called "Angel One". A planet is visited by the away team. Women dominate the world, men are used a slaves and sex objects. Riker has a good time.
Another memory is a book, The White Plague by Frank Herbert. Here, a scientist releases a plague that causes infertility in women. Only a few women are found to be fertile, and they are kept isolated. As a result they must lie with polyandry, mating with many men.
Interesting plots , and they seem to tie in with your book.
Hi Brian, a very tnought provoking review of a fascinating book. One thing that struck me as you describe the world of A Brother's Price in which only one man is born for every ten female births is how much biology has shaped our own world from the beginning of time simply because men have always been physically stronger than women.
The author Wen Spencer is nuanced in how she portrays the relationship between men and women and yet I think a world where there was a ratio of ten women to one man or ten men to one woman would be a nightmare where the gender that had such a significant majority would make life absolute hell for the opposite gender that didn't.
Hi Susan - I am a Trekkie so I am familiar with the episode Angel One. I also read The White Plague. In that one the disease killed most women, but in the end the world began to settle into polyandry. There was also DF Jones’s Implosion where a chemical introduced into the water made most of the world’s women infertile. In that one the fertile women were put into baby making camps. I thought that both books were terribly grim and disturbing. But they did explore gender issues. Then there is Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit which was a matriarchal group.
Thanks Cathy - One thing that scientists like Steve Stewart Smith convinced of is how much of the differences between men and women stem from the fact that women must devote at least nine months into reproduction where men do not.
Spencer’s word is hell for some men but many live within the society and find ways to make do and even thrive like the way that some women thrived in male dominated societies.
this reminds me, marginally, of Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin... don't know why, really, except that it seems to have that sort of flavor...
What a fascinating review. I don't recall having heard of this author before but she certainly seems to have a creative imagination. I don't read that much science fiction any more (although in one of my earlier lifetimes that was my main genre for reading) but I might have to check her out.
I always enjoy your in-depth reviews. It's nice to settle down during the quiet of the day to read them. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Hi Muddpuddle- The Left Hand of Darkness explored gender issues too. That book did so in such a unique way. This book was good, but it does not rise to the standards of Ursula Le Guin’s novel.
Thanks Dorothy. I also read a lot less science fiction these days. When I was younger I read a lot more.
I have not read anything else by Spencer but she has written multiple books.
Hi Brian. Great review!
I always question what compelled a writer to write such a story. Were they simply exploring a what if scenario? Were they trying to create empathy for the helplessness of women that they perceive in this world. Is it an angry feminist slant towards Men with a "See how you like it" kind of revenge?
To me her concepts are not original because man's inhumanity to man has never excluded men. One need only read of the appalling conditions of soldiers during the Crimean war to realize that. Men as well as women lost everything, including their lives during the Viking raids.
It's a matter of history that most conquering nations enslaved the defeated nation.
Male sex slaves are recorded in the Bible.
And sadly the sex traffic trade has never excluded males.
I think also that people today have used critical theory to look at the roles men and woman lived in the past and redefine them. Such as a man being the head of a family and its primary care giver as a superior status and a woman's domestic role as inferior. That was not so and neither did it deny women a significant authority. Yes there has been abuse, but abuse works both ways, men and women just use different tools to abuse.
A final thought, maybe the author is living out her own fantasy by creating a world where she feels in control?
The male/female role reversals are interesting ... and it seems like she can tell a story. I'm curious about what happens to Jerin and the royal sisters. Is the book part of a series?
Thanks Sharon. I think the Spencer was not doing those things. I was going to include this in my post, but this book was a lot like a Star Trek episode where the crew visits a planet where social conditions were flipped around. I think that science fiction writers have liked to do this for a long time.
Regardless of who had more of an advantage, gender roles have been different and Spencer seems to just be playing with them. And as you point out, mango men have also been terribly oppressed. Many women have done very well. The world of this novel has winners and losers and they include both men and women. This is one reason that I liked the world building here.
I hope that you and your family are healthy and stay that way.
Hi Susan - This book was very self contained with a definitive ending. Spencer has written sequels to several of her other books. A sequel to this one could work.
Thanks for a fascinating review of a book and author that I have not encountered. This sounds like what Margaret Atwood calls speculative fiction. Do the differences among men have anything to do with class or are they random occurrences?
Thanks James. There may be some class differences in the plight of men within the book, but Spencer does not dig deep enough in that area for it to be clear.
It is definitely speculative fiction. I was actually reminded of a Star Trek episode.
Great review, Brian. I will be reading this one, though I have to thank you because I had not heard of it before. I have read The Power and found it very good, though the reading group I suggested it to were unanimous in declaring it terrible, some did not even finish it. I think such novels are important because they get us to look at gender in unusual ways which opens up our thinking. That is an important function of literature for both men and women and those of a more fluid gender. Just to be uppity, I have to note that the books you mention about blank slatism were all written by men. I just find that an interesting statistic.
Hi Judy - I agree that these books are important and fascinating. I actually loved The Power though I also disagreed with its blank statism.
For whatever reason there seemed to be a shortage of women critics of blank slatism but that is changing. Cathy Young and Helen Pluckrose come to mind. Helen will be coming out with a book soon. Stay tuned for that, I will be reading and blogging about that one.
PS - It is interesting that all the novels that I have mentioned here about matriarchal societies were written by women (Frank Herbert’s Dune included one however) of those I would say that Herland, The Shore of Women and The Gates to Women’s Country we’re not blank slatist.
PPS - Apparently Leda Cosmides has written about evolutionary psychology and she is not a blank slatist.
Brian Joseph, I had not heard of this book before. This fictional matriarchy sounds kind of rough! The women are more like (today's) men. Hmm. . . Interesting commentary!
Hi Suko - Rough indeed! It is very much a roll reversal.
I Do Struggle With Alternative Worldly Reads - But Complex Characters Keeps On Engaged - Boys Drool And Girls Rule - Gotta Like That - Interesting Read From The Jerin Aspect For Sure - Thanx For The Write Up - Stay Strong Out There
Hi Padre - Alternate worlds are something that just do not work for everyone.
Debra Soh’s The End of Gender is coming out in August. It looks to be a strong criticism of Blank Slatism https://www.amazon.com/End-Gender-Debunking-Identity-Society/dp/1982132515
This sounds thought provoking. It sounds like the author took the reversing of gender roles to the extreme for the story. Great commentary as usual.
Thanks Naida - If one believes that gender, in terms of behavior is all culture, such a role reversal is possible.
I checked this out on Goodreads and it seems that the likes of Tamora Pierce and Lois McMaster Bujold liked it. Lois even said it was funny, in the world building, anyway. Interesting!
Hi Sue - Though I have not read either Pierce or Bujold, as I understand it, they are very respected writers. I also thought that there was effective humor in the book.
The universe in books like these is SO important and I'm glad it was a hit for you!
This is my first time visiting your blog, I'm glad I found it :)
Thanks for stopping by Esther. It is true, a universe that is not plausible could ruin a book like this.
I always enjoy your reviews. For some reason, the thought of an alternate world where women are more violent and sexually forward than men seems challenging to my imagination. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book. Hope your week holds beauty and blessings.
Thanks Belle. I also do no think that reality would play out like this.
I think one of the best review dear Brain!
I found this book COMPELLING because of world building writer went through.
As teenager I thought about world consist of women only which I thought would be heaven on earth but by the age I have become more practical now specially I now know that good or bad do not belong to race ?group or gender.
I cannot completely disagree with the writer because of my own observations and learning of world. I live in a conservative contery where women live through restrictions still I once read about accident where a university professor was murdered after raped by female students.
I know few women who react to males indecency and can go worst if find chance . I cannot forget day when I witnessed how girls can harass a lone boy .It was waiting room for candidates who had came for interview. You might know lot better than me about girlfriend of Hitler who was known for raping her juniors. I had read that in translated novel.
I would like to read this.
Thank you for for such wonderful blogging! Blessings
Thanks so much Baili. I agree that when it comes to negative tests all ethnicities and genders hand plenty of them. However, I think that when it comes to large groups of men snd large groups of women behaviors would be manifested differently. For instance, men on average, are more violent. This is the result of biology. However, this is just an average.
Nice review man. It's my first time reading a role reversal/ matriarchy themed novel. The concept feels fresh and interesting to me. Can you please recommend some good role reversal/ matriarchy novels like "a brother's price"???
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