Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Readings 2K9: A Woman Worth Ten Coppers

A Woman Worth Ten Coppers
by Morgan Howell

A young woman destined to give birth to a saviour is taken prisoner by bandits, and sold as a slave to the former servant of a holy man. The servant tries to make his way back to his temple, at the heart of a great Empire, while the countryside is torn by war — which may be the sign of a new and wicked god encroaching into the world. He does not know that his slave is also to be the mother of his saviour.

This is the story of A Woman Worth Ten Coppers, and if the gender politics sound suspicious, the book ends up tackling those suspicions head-on. It is in part about gender roles, about oppression and privilege, about power and masters and servants. There’s a conscious attention to the roles of women in Howell’s world, especially as those roles are affected by war. There’s a specific attention to the experiences of the main character, Yim, as contrasted with the masterless swordsman, Honus.

There’s also a level in which the relationship of Yim and Honus play as something out of a romance novel — slowly-developing love complicated by inequities in power. Howell’s got a good hand with that, keeping the feelings of the two on a slow burn while the novel winds through the obstacles they face on their journey. If it’s a romance novel as much as a fantasy, it’s one with a certain clarity of vision about the issues it’s dealing with. The dangers Yim and Honus face are well-chosen to develop their relationship and bring out elements of their characters.

These dangers include both physical threats and, this being a fantasy, more supernatural obstacles. But not that many of the latter. One of the engaging aspects of the novel’s construction as a fantasy is the way in which it creates a credible low-magic setting; most of the population of Howell’s world are farmers living at subsistence-level, and even this precarious existence is threatened by war. Against this background, incursions of the supernatural gain a weight, a significance, which makes even a relatively minor event — a single vision, a spell — stand out as something strange and wonderful.

The prose is relatively undistinguished, and I’ve been told that the overall plot is similar to Howell’s first series, the Queen of the Orcs trilogy; I can’t say myself, not having read it. I was slightly annoyed to find that A Woman Worth Ten Coppers was itself actually the first book of a trilogy — that’s not Howell’s fault, though, it’s an issue for the people who designed the book with no indication that it was the first of a series. Overall, this was a relatively thoughtful novel, a competent fantasy with some intelligent touches, well worth reading for fans of the genre.

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