Contains discussions of rape culture, feminism, and lots of spoilers.
Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress has four central characters, who are powerful mages with a shared childhood bond, but who are also young adults whose histories of trauma interfere with all their relationships. The sexual relationships of each character are different: one has been burned in the past and no longer wants to think about sex or romance. One is plagued by nightmares, but an experienced flirt who pursues superficial relationships in order to have companions at night. One discovers she’s lesbian, and has a heady summer romance. The fourth one, whom another writer might have made the protagonist, is an heiress pursued by men who want to marry her with or without her consent.
I had an argument with another SFF fan about this book recently. The fellow queer woman I was arguing with contended that Daja’s lesbian romance was never explained well and was not realistic. I replied that I’d related quite strongly to Daja’s experiences, but that that all the characters were very young–Daja imagines that her lover will happily leave her social life and prestigious position to live with Daja and be unlikely to find other work–and that this was the only romance in the book at all. She disagreed, in a way that really jarred me.
The heiress, Sandry’s, plot, is so political that before this conversation I might have criticized it as too obviously so: it’s set up and executed as a lesson about rape culture. In the early stage of the novel, the characters have recently come to Sandry’s inherited estates in an empire she knows little about. They learn that there is a law in place that men can kidnap unmarried women and force them to sign marriage contracts, and that this will go unpunished. Sandry is able to release a peasant woman from such a marriage, but she herself is vulnerable to such a kidnapping by anyone who used enough powerful magic. She would then have to appeal to the empress, who having escaped two kidnappings herself, has declared that any woman who does not escape is “a caged bird by nature” and deserves what she gets.
Real-life feminist lesson number one: Women in power do not always support others; often they blame other women for their own oppression. Okay Tammy, I get this one. I’m a mathematician, aren’t I? If I had a pay raise for every time I met another female mathematician who said something like “if someone in the department feels uncomfortable because of her gender, maybe she shouldn’t be there”, I could hire a great therapist.
As time goes on, Sandry begins to feel affection for her two main suitors, and is quite attracted to another nobleman. Unfortunately, it turns out he’s not supposed to pursue her because he’s the empress’ current lover. When one of her two suitors kidnaps her and she has to be rescued by two of the other main characters, the four of them decide to leave the empire. Briar, the only boy of the four, explains to the empress that no matter what position she offers him, he can’t possibly stay in a country where any woman he meets might be married against her will.
Real-life feminist tip number two: Men raised to respect women should recognize women’s oppression and see it as the social poison that it is. Too often a man who respects and supports the women in his life simply think, if a woman doesn’t have the power to do something, he can always do it for her, so this system should work just fine for her. But the gendered power dynamic will poison all his relationships to women, because they should never have to rely on him being healthy, or in a good mood, or not seeing it as inconvenient to do things for women that they are prevented from doing for themselves.
One memorable moment in the book has the main characters in a discussion with Sandry’s cousin, who manages her estate, and his wife, about the kidnapping law. Sandry’s cousin says, hurt, that Sandry is judging all men in the empire by the actions of a few. His wife points out eloquently that every time a woman is kidnapped, families try harder to protect their daughters, and place more restrictions on them so they have less and less freedom of movement. Therefore, are they not already teaching young women to judge all men as potential kidnappers?
Real-life feminist tip number three: This is how rape culture works. If society makes light of, legitimates or even encourages sexual violence, the people most likely to be targets will have to view others as threats. Similar to part two really.
Finally, the part where we really disagreed, Sandry’s “romance”. She flirts with a guy; he kisses her, and she likes it. Late in the book, he comes and proposes to her, and when she declines, he insists, coming over to kiss and seduce her. She responds with sexual desire, but uses magic to get him off of her. Not long afterwards, as the four are leaving the country, he makes another kidnapping attempt.
Real-life feminist tip number four: If someone does not respect your boundaries, they really do not respect your boundaries. The first incident, that of insisting and seducing, might seem minor; I would have thought so, at one point. In fact I remember the first time I read this book, being confused about why Sandry would push him away, if she “liked” what he was doing. The kidnapping is clearly no such minor thing, but the first action is a sign of the second.
In that conversation, even while I was protesting, I remembered also thinking that the book had “two romances”. I couldn’t believe that this other fan, whom I knew from previous conversation shared a certain amount of social-justice politics, would have missed all these pointers: Sandry’s dealings with men in The Will of the Empress are an illustration of rape culture, specifically rape culture directed against women. (I would argue that rape culture in the US is one that oppresses everyone who has ever experienced sexual violence, although the effects vary by gender.) I don’t know what she was really saying; she may have been about to make points that I missed. But what jarred me the most was contrasting my own readings, “before feminism” when I was confused about Sandry’s motivations and then blindsided when her suitor decided to kidnap her, and saw the kidnapping laws as unrelated to my own society; and “after years and growing branches of feminism” when I imagined the messages in the book were too obvious.
I guess they’re never too obvious.
What really interests me about the book, though, was the way Sandry’s friends pressured her to give up a huge chunk of class privilege because to do otherwise would allow her vassals to suffer. She first fended them off with “noble tears”, then took some time to think it over and did the best thing she could.
Real-life social-justice tip: Accountability. It’s a thing. When your friends hold you accountable to doing the right thing, value that. If you don’t have relationships to anyone who will do that, then build those relationships and seek that criticism.