When I started writing The Relevation Trilogy (TRT), I wanted to tell a story. Plain and simple. And tell it to the best of my ability. I didn’t plan to write an allegory or insert lots of social commentary into the story. I find when authors do this without being explicit about it, the story can suffer because the narrative is squeezed to fit the desired social or political position.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the best books ever written have taken a very strong stance in regards to particular social or political issues. But that was the author’s intention right from the very beginning. Books like 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood.
At other times, you can tell the author is taking a stance on a particular issue (e.g. race relations), but the story isn’t specifically about that issue. If the author ends up harping on the issue through their narrative (e.g. constantly commenting on the skin colour of each character), to me it becomes distracting and detrimental to the story. I won’t give any examples because I’m not here to detract from what other writers have done.
Having said all that, it’s hard to get away from current topical issues when writing a fictional novel, regardless of when and where that novel is set (even in fantasy worlds). If you’re aware of these issues, they’re likely to infiltrate your writing whether you planned it or not.
This is what happened in TRT. At the very beginning, I never listed any social or political issues that the book would touch on, I simply began writing the story. All of the notes I had at that time were about particular characters and plot progression, or research in regards to historical influences that would help form the cultures I invented. (There’s one big caveat here, but I won’t reveal that until I’ve sold a million books. So, never.)
However, when I began writing, socio-political themes emerged and it seemed I couldn’t do anything about it! (I know it’s hard for non-writers to understand, but when you write a novel, the story and characters have a habit of taking off on their own and doing things you never expected. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s fun when it does because you’re not sure what’s around the corner. Weird huh?)
Anyway, one of the themes that emerged was the role of men and women in the different cultures of Ostamp.
I’ve mentioned already that the Erstürmen are a patriarchal monarchy. This means women are marginalised in this culture, and valued only for a limited number of roles (e.g. wives, mothers, servants). It’s oppressive and repressive. We see the impact this culture has on women through the eyes of Princess Caeli (valued only for her potential to produce another heir for King Ewald), Queen Romilda and Rosalie Barron. Rosalie in particular drifts away from her family and culture as the story progresses. Her father allowed her to learn smithing, but now she’s 18 harvest seasons old, family talk turns to her securing a husband and having a family. Rosalie feels repressed and claustrophobic living in the fifth circle of Sardis. The future placed before her looks bleak and uninviting. She thought her affair with Harris Snape may be her ticket out of Sardis, but that didn’t pan out as she planned. Rosalie feels like she was born into the wrong culture and is desperate for an escape.
In a broader sense, as the events of When Darkness Descends progress, it seems the Erstürmen patriarchy is starting to crumble. This could be viewed as mirroring the changes that have occurred in our own society over recent decades. Yet, what replaces the rule of King Ewald will not necessarily improve the position of women in Enthilen. It seems things may have to get worse before they get better.
The Dobunni take a different approach to gender roles. Men and women share power and tasks equally, and both are accepted as warriors. While recent leaders of the Dobunni have been men (Jurelle, Ryder), women have led in the past and anyone can nominate to lead the rebels. Leadership positions are decided by voting, with each Dobunni family allowed to cast a vote in the election. I describe this process in At the End of Everything.
Equality between genders reflects the Dobunni philosophy of inclusion, whereby they accept all cultures into their settlements (as was the case with Laodicea). Unfortunately, embracing diversity didn’t save the Dobunni from the Erstürmen conquerors, and at the time of When Darkness Descends, Dobunni society isn’t in a good state. It takes until Book 3, She Will Rise, before the winds of change start to blow in favour of the Dobunni.
Gender roles in the stone-grells can be both inclusive and restrictive. Let me explain. Males and females can be elders, leaders, hunters, gatherers and warriors. However, only males watch over the border between Babir Birramal and the Dambay Plains, and only males are permitted to travel to Malang Gunya during the homage march to pay their respects to those who fell during the Erstürmen invasion.
Why? This restrictiveness has been forced on the stone-grells out of necessity. Female grells are prized by the Erstürmen for two reasons. Either to single out and kill to reduce the number of wild stone-grells, or to capture and enslave to serve and/or give birth to more slaves. Given the population size of wild stone-grells is dwindling, it’s critical for them to protect their females (especially those of breeding age) and keep them out of harms way.
This is why Grin was so upset to see a female stone-grell and child captured by the Erstürmen scouts, and why he had to try to save her.
Enactment of sacred ceremony can also be split along gender lines for the stone- and weald-grells. Certain ceremonies are only for women or men, but not both.
At the other end of the spectrum to the Erstürmen are the Germalians. We meet this culture only briefly in Book 1, and again in Book 2, but their culture dominates the events of She Will Rise.
Germalia is a matriarchal, restrictive democracy. Only women can vote, hold positions of power and fight in the army or carry a recognised weapon (e.g. sword, dagger, bow etc). Men are labourers, crafters, fishers etc, but rarely administrators or any other position that involves wielding any real power.
Germalian society is ruled by the ‘conventus’ which is comprised of 288 female senators from 12 factions. The chair of the conventus is the ‘sella’, and she holds the most powerful position in Germalia, although her job is primarily to chair meetings (keeping the conventus running smoothly) and coordinate and tally votes. Nevertheless, she has the casting vote when positions are equally split on any given matter, and is extremely well respected in Germalian society.
I won’t explain this culture in further detail. If you make it to Book 3, you’ll learn all about them.
Gender roles in the less-explored cultures of TRT vary. The barbarian tribes mostly share roles, similar to the Dobunni, the Pordillo (who you’ll meet in Book 3) are quite patriarchal, although it isn’t unheard of for them to have female leaders, and gender roles among the Nordmen vary from tribe to tribe.
That leaves the mouldewerps. Well, I’m not going to tell you. There’s a surprise coming. You’ll just have to wait!
Next up, the October Blog will be the first Writer’s Workshop: Where to start.
Until then, keep reading, writing and trying to make the world a better place.