Catherine M. Wilson’s The Warrior’s Path, published 2008, Part One of When Women Were Warriors, is, on the one hand, well written and intriguing – and, on the other, deeply frustrating. I suppose that if judged within the context of the whole trilogy it would be less unsatisfying, but I do believe that books should stand on their own merits.
When Women Were Warriors is set in a world of low technology with occasional hints of magic. It could be a prehistorical fantasy or a post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi fantasy. More importantly, the specific setting is a matriarchy where women are warriors. Most of the main characters in the story are women, or girls becoming women. They are warriors, apprentice warriors, companions to warriors. The narrator, Tamras, is herself setting out on this journey, brought as a girl to the House of Merin, made companion to a warrior, and with hopes of one day being a warrior like her mother before her.
Tamras forges a strong (non-sexual) relationship with ‘her warrior’, Maara, an outsider to the society who is viewed with suspicion by many. She is a skilled hunter and warrior and teaches Tamras how to think and how to survive. In her turn, Tamras is a skilled storyteller with many tales to tell which all begin with the traditional line, ‘In ancient days, when only women were warriors,…’ Almost inevitably there are echoes of Xena and Gabrielle, the brilliant warrior woman with a troubled past finding new purpose in life with the young, good-hearted bard.
Of course there’s so much more to it. The attention to detail in culture and rituals, and in techniques for healing and hunting is excellent. The tales that Tamras tells have echoes of our own fairytales, and the writing generally is often poetic. The relationships between the women are constructed and played out with care, although the close bonding between experienced warriors and girls just on the edge of womanhood does trouble me a little.
However, I have two major issues with this book. The primary story is Maara’s gradual acceptance of and into society. You could argue that there’s a coming-of-age story for Tamras too, but otherwise there are just incidents – the general soap opera of life. It’s not enough to justify a whole book. As the first book in a trilogy, there should be some major conflict building on the horizon, tying the events of the book into Act One. There’s nothing wrong with what’s there (although describing an act of lovemaking with several pages of poetry does feel self-indulgent when the actual plot seems to be missing), but The Warrior’s Path feels like a Prelude to Act One rather than Act One itself.
The second and more important point of frustration is the persistent vagueness about the roles of men in the matriarchal society, the impact they have on the lives of the women, the opinions men and women have about the roles of men in their society. Even 75% of the way through you could be forgiven for thinking that all women are lesbians and men exist solely for the purpose of making babies. During the last 25% it does become clearer that men can be objects of desire, that they too can be warriors.
I am not trying to invalidate this matriarchy or assert heteronormativity, but I am frustrated that so much care has gone into world-building in this novel but fundamental questions of gender roles and sexuality are barely asked, let alone answered. I am reminded of Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country and Kate Elliott’s Jaran, and this book suffers in comparison.