I just read a couple of books by Maria V. Snyder called Poison Study and Magic Study. I don’t know that I have ever read a fantasy novel set in an early industrial revolution time frame with a moderately successful communist military government before. Especially one that neither preached communism nor villified it, but showed the reasons the persons involved created it and the limitations and benefits of it. That was fascinating, no less because the second book compared that government with an early version of democracy and a tribal society.
But even more interesting are the two major female characters. The protagonist, Yelena, is a woman. She is neither usual or unusual as a woman in her culture; the military oligarchy (if you can believe this) has equalized women with men and jobs and positions are based on ability and talent discovered by teachers in the mandatory schooling. Yelena is, however, unusual as an individual who has murdered the son of a general, someone who would seem to be her benefactor, and who has lived to tell about it. Taking the life of another person under the military Code of Behavior is always punishable by death even in cases of self defense, and so Yelena lives under a sentence of death.
In the first book she is offered reprieve as the food taster for Commander Ambrose (the highest official in her country), and her story comes out only in bits and pieces. Given a setting in just barely pre-industrial revolution and post-monarchy, the “food taster” checks for poison in the Commander’s food, an (eventual) death sentence in itself. We soon realize that Yelena committed murder under what any reasonable person would consider desperately justifiable circumstances, but she is not a whiner. She knows the law, and submits calmly to her fate – the torture she received as a teenager has been relieved by the murder of her torturer, and at first she is resigned to the consequences of her relative freedom. As she grows accustomed to her limited freedom, Yelena starts making plans to escape eventual death, making friends, learning to fight, and eventually discovering her own magical powers.
Yelena is an original and kick-ass heroine, and I loved her even more in the second book, Magic Study, but she’s actually not the most interesting female character in the book.
[Spoilers for Poison Study follow]
Maria Snyder has created the only serious transsexual character I remember reading in a fantasy novel. Remember Commander Ambrose? And you thought he was a man, right? Well so does everyone else in Ixia. Commander Ambrose has lived as a man for years, but was born female, into a feudalistic monarchy that relegated noble women to parties, embroidery, and marriage. Feeling her gender to be incorrect, the young noble lady proved to herself that she was supposed to be a man by completing a feat of hunting no one had ever been able to do before (killing a snow cat) and then took a male identity and led a revolution. Now he lives as a man, the successful head of a military oligarchy, administrating a country with uncompromising, merciless law but strict justice, where everyone works and everyone eats. Unlike other fantasy stories where a woman must masquerade as a man to do what she wants to do, Commander Ambrose actually believes that his correct gender identity is as a man. I found it fascinating that Commander Ambrose could be expressed as a whole person with his own feelings about his gender identity. The author doesn’t seem to have a bone to pick, and there’s no aha! moment where it’s vital that the Commander be a woman-masquerading-as-a-man. S/he just is who he is, for his own reasons. You can have your own philosophical beliefs about transsexuals or communism; the book doesn’t preach. It just tells a story with an interesting setting and believable characters.