The following are all true facts about my reading of G.R. Macallister’s Scorpica:
- That I was offered a free digital copy of the book by its publicist in return for a fair review;
- That, at about the 40% mark on the digital copy, I ordered the book in hardcover anyway;
- That I am definitely buying the next book in the series;
- That I am not sure at all how much I liked it.
This is an interesting one, y’all. Scorpica is a close relative of the recent microgenre known as “All of the XXX are gone,” where XXX is filled by, usually, an entire gender. I can think of a handful of examples– and, in fact, I have another on my TBR shelf right now— of this broad plot being used, and, well, it can be a tricky thing to write, at least partially because trans people exist, and one of the questions people might reasonably ask right away is whether you as an author are aware that trans people exist, and how you treat them within your book where all the wimminz went away, or whether you even acknowledge that they exist, can at the very least put your book at a disadvantage right away.
Scorpica doesn’t quite do that, as the issue here is that, in a fantasy world simply known as the Five Queendoms, female babies suddenly stop being born. Nothing happens to anyone who is currently alive, but the book goes fifteen years with no female infants being born anywhere in the Queendoms. The Queendoms themselves, as you might already suspect, are matriarchies, and the book employs a rotating POV among several characters scattered among at least most of the five countries, although most of the characters are at least tangentially connected to Scorpica, one of the five.
In a first for any work of fantasy I’ve ever read, the book starts off with not one but two babies being born, and it hit me while I was reading that I can’t really think of any detailed narrative descriptions of what giving birth is like that were 1) set in fictional worlds and 2) written by a woman. Macallister excels at describing how her characters are feeling, and her description of both the births is … harrowing, even though both of them end up going well. As the book goes on, and the nature of the problem becomes clear, it’s interesting to see how the different cultures represented in the Queendoms react to what becomes known as the Drought. The Scorpicans are presented as a very martial, Not Amazons type of culture, and it seems like they’re the most thoroughly matriarchal as well. I don’t know how many books are planned in this series, and it’ll be interesting to see if the next one shifts the focus from the mostly Scorpican characters to new characters from somewhere else.
And, well, this is sort of where I start having issues with the book. You all know how into worldbuilding I am. Give me a setting that I think is cool and I’m willing to overlook a lot, but if you get me into a place where I start nitpicking your worldbuilding your book and I may not end up getting along all that well. And the interesting thing here is that I do have a whole lot of questions about how this world works, but I liked it anyway, where I feel like this exact setting in the hands of a less talented author would have me writing a post with a whole lot of sarcastic bullet points ending in unanswered questions.
One thing I would definitely like to have seen, and I’m honestly surprised to be typing this, because as a straight white guy I’m not used to having to worry about representation: I need y’all to realize that this is not just a book about five queendoms and five matriarchal societies, this is a book where narratively speaking men barely even exist. The Scorpicae may literally be an all-female country; there is talk about sending male babies to something called the “Orphan House,” and as the Drought drags on they actually start taking unwanted female children from other countries. There are no male PoV characters, but there are also virtually no male minor characters. One PoV character ends up in a little gang of bandits for a while that has a pair of male twins in it, and there’s one dude who ends up fathering a child for one character who gets some dialogue while she’s deciding to let him impregnate her. That’s about it, and you’re never going to see him again afterwards. Several characters mention being married to men but their husbands play no role in the story.
Everyone– everyone, everyone, everyone— is at least a little bit bisexual, by the way. It’s the default, to the point where it’s generally barely worth commenting on.
At any rate, I’d like to have seen maybe one male character, if only because I really don’t know how men exist in the Queendoms. They’re treated as afterthoughts if not actually chattel in Scorpica, and there’s talk that one of the other Queendoms is considering raising their role in society late in the book, but by and large we don’t have any real idea what their lives are like, or even answers to questions like what fatherhood looks like in this world. Like, do none of the men in the Queendoms have any idea if they have children or not? Is this sort of like a societal flip-flop where men occupy low-status occupations? Are they cooking and cleaning and having dinner on the table when their wives get home? I don’t know!
(And, to make this clear, I have no problem with the idea that all of the PoV characters are women in and of itself, but in a book that is explicitly about a society that handles gender very differently from how we do, I think wondering about the male perspective on all this is fair. And while we might get into it in later books, it’s simply not there in this one.)
So, yeah: I’m in for the sequel, and I’m glad that the publicist put this on my radar, because I’d have missed it otherwise. There are definitely some flaws and big open questions here (and it’s worth pointing out that while Greer Macallister is an established author, this is her first foray into epic fantasy) and I ended up four-starring it on GR, but it’s absolutely something that I want to see more of. There’s a great sudden left turn at the end of the book– not quite a cliffhanger, I think, but the book sets you up to believe one thing is going to be happening through the series and then yanks the rug out from underneath you at the end, and I’m really curious to see where this goes next. If the notion of an explicitly feminist epic fantasy floats your boat, you should absolutely give Scorpica a look.