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Even the Stones
Marie Jakober
Edge, 337 pages

Even the Stones
Marie Jakober
Marie Jakober grew up in a log cabin on a small homestead in northern Alberta. Her home schooling, by correspondence, and an imaginative flair for storytelling brought her international recognition at age 13 with the publication of her poem The Fairy Queen. She graduated from Carleton University with distinction, and has toured, lectured, and served on numerous panels. She is the author of five books, including the science fiction novel The Mind Gods, and the winner of the 1985 Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction for her novel Sandinista. She lives in Calgary, Canada.

Marie Jakober Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Black Chalice
SF Site Review: The Black Chalice
SF Site Review: The Black Chalice
Sample Chapter: The Black Chalice
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

When I first read the Joanna Russ short story, "When it Changed," I didn't get it. In this exemplar of feminist SF in which women on a (temporarily, it turns out) manless world act in many ways like men, particularly in terms of violent behavior. The casual way the female narrator notes she has fought three duels and that the funny thing about her wife is that "she will not handle guns" bothered me. Here I thought feminism was supposed to be about rejecting this kind of macho behavior.

Of course, the story isn't advocating gunplay as necessarily a good thing, but rather that women should have the right to make the same choices as men, unhampered by patriarchal-imposed expectations and restraints. Even if they are not very good choices that don't fit into some mother-goddess worshipping, nourishing pacifist utopia.

The moral of "When I Changed" is that even when women are somehow allowed to make whatever choices they want, without imposing values of "masculine" or "feminine" on what those choices should be, men will get involved to screw things up. Russ very effectively and disturbingly and subtly and insidiously -- by which I mean to say "artfully" -- conveys this theme in the space of five pages or so.

Which brings me to the problem I have with Marie Jakober's Even the Stones, which deals with the same issues but over the course of 337 pages keeps browbeating me with its "message" to the point where it gets in the way of what is an otherwise well-told -- if predictable -- romantic fantasy that is enjoyable, if you ignore the clumsy agit-prop.

The novel offers a standard fantasy medieval setting complete with a headstrong young queen in the midst of a dilemma and a mysterious maverick soldier who comes to her aid -- and her bed -- along with generous helpings of mythological mumbo-jumbo amidst various treacheries and battles between the forces of good and evil. In at least one respect where Jakober does not adhere to formula, this is not the first volume in fat book trilogy, but a self-contained story with little hint of, or need for, a sequel.

The nation of Kamilan (meant to sound a bit like Camelot?) is invaded by Prince Held (the symbolism of the name becomes obvious shortly) of neighboring Dravia for the express purpose of kidnapping its young queen, Marwen, and taking her to wife. Though forced into connubial relations, Marwen continues to defy Held, refusing to acknowledge him as neither her sovereign nor her husband. In his own way, or at least in contrast to medieval mores, Held really isn't such a bad guy; even despite testosterone notions that women are meant to be subservient, he is extremely tolerant of his young queen's continuing rebellion to his authority. Marwen actually could have a soft spot for the guy, except that she objects to the manner of his forceful courtship. Oh, if only he had been more of a gentleman, things might have turned out differently!

A chance meeting with Kiri, a sort of gypsy minstrel who is also a skilled bodyguard, in other words a woman in a man's role, leads to a successful escape back to Kamilan. Held takes after her and probably would have recaptured her were it not for the loyal Shadrack, freed slave and unconventional warrior whose decidedly unchivalrous guerrilla tactics are tolerated by the nobility only so long as they work and, more importantly, Shadrack keeps his place. Indeed, Shadrack's rescue of Marwen warrants less attention than that the manner in which he kills Held is considered dishonorable. As if forcibly carrying off your sovereign and forcing her into an unwanted marriage isn't. But, of course, that's the point, that men with their silly notions about honorable behavior take no notice of a woman's honor except as it relates to property rights.

Though Marwen is returned to her rightful throne, we're far from happily ever after. The powers that be (the men) that have run Kamilan in Marwen's absence expect her to yield to their better judgment (they are men after all). Marwen, however, has other ideas, including keeping her promise to the mother-goddess Jana. The deal is that if Jana answers Marwen's prayers to return to her homeland, Marwen will revoke the ban of worship and reopen Jana's temple. Needless to say, this doesn't sit quite right with the patriarchal theological establishment.

Marwen is no slouch at the manly game of politics, however, and is willing to take whatever expedient is necessary to protect her throne, including entering into marriage to provide an heir. Although the marriage is arranged on her terms, consistent with the more "open-ended" traditions of Jana, her choice of an ambitious husband proves ill-fated.

Meanwhile, the evil Berend, Held's brother who otherwise had no use for Held when he was alive and king, decides to take revenge on Kamilan. Berend's overwhelming superiority in forces takes a heavy toll, but, thanks to Marwen's "secret" lover Shadrack and his unconventional tactics, is ultimately defeated. However, the victory is considered tainted, and court intrigue seeks to reestablish masculine-defined order.

Along the way, just in case you haven't got it, you have to endure passages like this:

Marriage by contract and marriage by capture were not very much different... Yes, men would offer them rewards. Men could easily do so; they controlled them all. Do you want to eat well, woman? -- do you want, perhaps, to eat at all? Do you want your children to make their way in the world. Do you want a wall and a sword between yourself and a world of ravishers and thieves. Marry me then, and build my fortune, and breed my sons. Save yourself! What began as necessity in the face of conquest was quickly turned into virtue, into the order of the universe and the will of the gods.
Or how about this:
These men want a god who orders everything in the universe except themselves. Mohr is a god of mastery; that's why they like him. Those who serve him are to have dominion over the world, and everyone else must obey them -- wives, children, slaves and servants, other nations, beasts, the earth itself. Everything is theirs.
It's not that I'm overly sensitive because I'm a guy; it's not that I take offense at this stuff. In fact, I agree with it. I just think a novel should be more artful than constantly clubbing you over the head with this kind of stuff every few pages. Far more effective, in contrast, is when Jakober follows a scene with what appears to be an historical recounting of the very same event that is distorted to the point of falsehood because it is told from the perspective of some future when men have again reasserted their dominion.

Another problem is that Marwen is a curiously passive character who, despite her intelligence, is much too dependent on others for her fortune. Where Mary Gentle would have her heroine taking up arms against her enemies and swilling mead with her allies, Marwen, like any good stay-at-home queen, remains holed up in the castle while her people are slaughtered for her political convictions (but, then, they're just men playing their silly battle games). Even more curiously, for a novel that wears its feminist agenda on its sleeve, complete with cover blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin, it ultimately takes a man, Shadrack, to save queen and country. Even Kiri, the woman who competently performs a man's job, is primarily a foil, a supporting role in a performance that's kept off center stage.

What's odd is that a novel so critical of enforced gender roles panders to the forms of a genre that profits on it. Here we have the damsel in distress enraptured by the darkly handsome muscle-bound hunk that graces the cover of every routine Harlequin romance, the light escapist reading of housewives and domestics everywhere who probably wouldn't know Betty Friedan from Betty Crocker.

Perhaps Jakober's intent is to employ the conventions of the form to subvert it. Then perhaps I think it would be much more successful if it weren't so blatantly obvious.

Copyright © 2005 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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