Monday 21 February 2022

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Review: Scorpica by G. R. MacAllister (#Ad)

A photo of Scorpica by G. R. MacAllister taken from above. The book is diagonial, top right to top left. The book is mostly on a gold, circular tray filled with sand, with the botom of the book hanging off the tray, which fills up three quarters of the photo, with the final quarter - left and bottom of the photo - there's a navy scarf with metallic silver stars and moons, which is partly under the tray. Across the bottom of the book, is a letter opener - silver blade, black handle - overhanging both sides of the book, pointing upwards towards the top left corner of the photo.

I was sent this proof for free by Titan Books for the purposes of providing an honest review.

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Scorpica by G. R. MacAllister

Published: 22nd February 2022 | Publisher: Titan Books | Source: Publisher
Author’s Website

In an ancient matriarchal world of magic, gods and warriors, the last girl – unbeknownst to the five queendoms – has just been born. As time marches on, the scribes of Bastian find no answers in their history books. The farmers of Sestia sacrifice their crops to the gods. Paxim, the empire of trade and dealings, has nothing to barter but boys and more boys. Arcan magic has no spells to remedy the Drought of Girls. And finally, Scorpica, where every woman is a fighter, their commander, their queen, has no more warriors to train. The lines of these once-great empires soon to die.

After centuries of peace, the ensuing struggle for dominance – and heirs – will bring the five queendoms to the eve of all-out war.

But the mysterious curse is linked to one of the last-born children, an orphaned all-magic girl, who is unaware she has a claim to the Arcan throne...
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I've been in a massive high fantasy kick lately, and have been longing for something that reminds me of why I fell in love with this genre. I've had a few disappointments, until I picked up Scorpica by G. R. MacAllister. Finally, something that felt like home. It was bloody incredible.

Scorpica takes place in the matriarchal world of the Five Queendoms. Scorpica is the queendom of warrior women, a semi-nomadic people whose lives are training to be the best they can be. Fierce and strong, Scorpicae are only women; whenever a boy is born, he is sold to the other queendoms. In this world, men are not warriors. Paxim is the queendom of trade deals and negotiations; anything that needs negotiating in the Five Queendoms goes through Paxim. Bastion is a scholarly queendom, it's people devoted to recording everything of import for the sake of history. Sestians are farmers, raising sheep and growing crops that feed the whole of the Five Queendoms. They're also the most devout, and it is here where you'll find the priests of Sestia, and where the religious Sun Rites take place. And then there's Arca, a queendom of sand, whose people are blessed by the god Velja with magic. They have the power to control earth or air magic, fire or water, body or mind, or, for the rare few, all-magic. The Five Queendoms have been chugging along amicably for the past 500 years, ever since the Great Peace; all queendoms needs something from the others. But then one day, the last baby girl is born. It isn't noticed at first, it takes a while, and even longer to realise it's not just one's own queendom, but all of them. Only boys in a world that has no use for boys. And as each year passes, the Great Peace is threatened as tensions become strained. If there are no baby girls, there are no queendoms.

Scorpica is almost a difficult story to talk about, because ot follows different people over the course of 15 years, and because of the events that happen, sometimes narrators change. There are three major threads that we follow. The first is of the Scorpicae, and mainly through their queen, Tamura. What is a queendom of warriors to do when there are no new warriors to train? Putting aside that the entire population of the Five Queendoms would eventually die out if there are never any baby girls, as a queendom of only women, the uncertainty around the Drought of Girls hits them the hardest initially. Tamura is ruthless, young and untested, she's brash and hotheaded, but also uncertain. She finds joy in the battle, her skills lying in fighting, but not so much in politics and governing. Her people demand answers, or at least a plan of action, which she keeps putting off. She is a devoted, proud Scorpicae, ambitious for her people, determined and seemingly confident. Anger is her driving force, mainly. But inexperience generally and the unknown that is the Drought of Girls lead her to making decisions that could very well end the Great Peace.

Then we have Jehenit, an Arcan with healing magic from a very small village that is struggling to keep it's head above water. On the very last day girls were born, she gave birth to her daughter, Eminel. But Eminel is no ordinary Arcan baby girl; she has all-magic. In Arcan, royalty doesn't go down the matrilineal line; each new queen is the most powerful among those with all-magic. But far from this being a blessing, Jehenit knows that when Seekers take all-magic girls to the Dawn Palace, they never return. Wanting to save her daughter from potentially devastating fate, she runs. Arcan magic is tied to the sand of their land; without sand, there is no magic. A healer who is devoted to her village turns her back on her people, leaving Arcan to keep her daughter hidden and safe.

Finally, there's Marriam, Queen of Arca. Powerful and conniving, she revels in her own position and the magic that got her there. She is narcissistic, but cruel and despicable. She is over 100 years old, but she retains her youth be draining the life force of all-magic girls. Despite the struggles of Arcan villages, the nobility thrive on their privilege, think only of themselves, and use others for their own gain and jockeying their position in court. Marriam trusts no-one but one of her husbands and her daughter; the Arcan nobility will stab anyone in the back if it can elevate them.

I really loved Scorpica! The world building is incredible. I loved the matriarchal society of the Five Queendoms, women being front and center; the strongest, the most powerful. As a high fantasy fan, I've read a number with strong, powerful women, but they are always outnumbered by strong, powerful men. That is most definitely not the case here. Although they are not treated unfairly, men have no power - or, if they do, in regards to magical power, it's nothing compared to the women. I've read a few dystopian stories in the past that have matriarchal societies, whose overall message tends to be that a society with equality between the genders is really the only way forward, but that's not the case with Scorpica. MacAllisater isn't trying to say anything about our society with this society; this is just the way the Five Queendoms are, and I really enjoyed it. Saying that, all the women are multifaceted and human. These aren't women who are even-tempered, nurturing, wise, or any other stereotype of high fantasy women. These women are real. The protagonists are flawed and make mistakes, the antagonists are cruel beyond imagining and power hungry.

I never really knew whose side I was on. There are so many characters in this story I despised, and yet MacAllister makes them compelling enough that even though I hated them, I was enthralled by their story, and how the changes in the world were affecting them. I don't normally enjoy books with more than three narrators; I tend to find there are too many, some I'm not keen on, and it always takes so long to cycle through them. But that's not the case with Scorpica. Besides Tamura, Jehenit, and Marriam, there are a range of other narrators, always people close to those three, all focused on one of the three threads. But it's all so evenly balanced between them all; the chapters are fairly short, and for the longer ones, there will be a few narrators - no more than three - that split it up and keep that balance. It doesn't take all that long to cycle through, and as I've said, there were characters I didn't like, but I was still interested in their narration/thread. Scorpica is somewhat of a slow burner, but it's also a quick read, and there was enough going on with each thread that kept my interest. I loved that the plot centers around something that is unknown, even to the characters. This isn't a story you can predict the outcome of, you don't know what decisions people are going to make, or what those decisions will lead to. I was completely captivated and enamoured by this story.

Scorpica is also a queer story! There is a sapphic relationship between two characters, and there's a semi-vague f/f sex scene between two others. Arcans are polyamorous, with women having two husbands (what's interesting is that children have mothers, but not fathers; they are referred to as their mother's huband/s). Although no labels are used, the Five Queendoms is a world where trans people are acknowledged and accepted, with the mention of non-binary, bigender, and agenda people; there is a pansexual character in Fasiq, a secondary character without a POV narration, who mentions her lovers have been men and women, neither or both. And there's a non-POV Priest of no gender, using they/them pronouns. Given the matriarchal society, I'd be interested to know where non-binary people fit in the hierarchy of things, but it's never mentioned. What if an assigned-female-at-birth Scorpicae identifies non-binary/bigender/agenda? Scorpicae are women only, and this is shown quite clearly when a man born of a Scorpicae woman wants to join them and train as a warrior. So would a trans person have a place in Scorpicae? Where would trans women sit in this society? How would a trans man, strong in magic, be seen or treated in Arca? I think it's mainly just incidental inclusion, a reflection of our world, but when there is a hierarchy based on gender, I do think these things need to be considered. I suppose a question has been answered with the agender Priest, as priests are generally women in the Five Queendoms. I'd be interested to see if any of the other questions are answered in future books.

Scorpica was absolutely gripping, and an incredible debut high fantasy. I was completely engrossed in this story, and only one book in, I have most definitely found my new favourite high fantasy series! I cannot wait for the sequel, to see where the story takes the characters next. G. R. MacAllister is going to be one to watch.

Thank you to Titan Books for the proof.

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