Today's book review is A Brother's Price by Wen Spencer.
This is a standalone novel, unrelated to any of Spencer's other works.
I had thought that I'd read all of Spencer's published novels, but I'd somehow missed this one. It's sort of a fantasy, in that it takes place on an alternate earth. There's no magic, but technology roughly that of America in the early 1800s. There seems to be a very stable society that's built up hundreds of years of history with all of the social fabric tied to the fact that in this world there are about 10 women for every man. The resulting society is laid out in detail and is internally consistent enough to be very believable. It reverses every traditional assumption in our society about gender roles; obviously, it's intended to force the reader to think about how society treats women. I think a lot of people would find it annoyingly heavy-handed. I also think that it would make a lot of people squirm when they realized how uncomfortable the gender role assumptions feel when they're reversed, because they probably realize that they wouldn't find any of the situations anywhere near so uncomfortable if they weren't reversed.
The plot is a little thin -- some things just fall perfectly into place after they're suggested, without really working for them -- but it's a pretty fair adventure and the characters are likable. One huge, glaring physics-violation plot hole that I'll mention under the cut. A fun read, but the story is too shallow to be great. The gender role speculation is interesting, but again doesn't rise to the level of great.
8 out of 10.
**** PLOT HIGHLIGHTS -- SPOILERS ****
I got distracted writing this a few days ago, and now I have other stuff I need to post, so I'm going to be more brief than usual.
Jerin's mothers and older sisters are off on business. His middle sisters, his own age, are going behind their mother's backs to court a neighbor, which would mean Jerin would be swapped as a husband for their son, a fate he finds horrible. Then armed strangers run through the property and leave a beaten woman to drown in the creek. Jerin, being the strongest person there, carries her into the house. Her sister Princess Rensselaer arrives shortly and it's revealed that she is Princess Odelia. The princesses are tracking down gun smugglers. Romantic sparks fly between Jerin and Ren, and Ren arranges to have Jerin presented at court to receive his medal. Jerin is accosted by a mysterious stranger who kisses him. Ren and Odelia want to marry Jerin, but they need to track down the missing Princess Halley to get her to agree as well. Jerin finds his way into the middle of a secret conspiracy. The Porter sisters were responsible for the murder of Ren's father and also for a theater bombing that killed Ren's oldest sisters and Keifer Porter, who had been the royal husband. Jerin discovers that Kij, the leader of the Porters, was sleeping with Keifer, legally her brother though not biologically. Jerin is kidnapped. The mysterious stranger rescues him, but they get caught again. They're being held on a steamboat, and when they succeed in killing their guards, they disable the boat which then goes over the big waterfall. Jerin, the stranger, who is really Princess Halley of course, and all the other important good guys somehow survive the accident. Jerin marries the princesses and his price buys Cullen as a bride for his own sisters. The Porters are defeated and they all live happily ever after.
Almost all of this book takes place at a pretty decent level of realism. There's no magic, the tech level of steamboats and cannons seems to be fairly consistent, the unbalanced sex ratio is justified by some historical plague, and the extreme chastity rules are justified because syphilis is endemic; they know what it is but they don't have any way to cure it. It's all solid enough that it was really jarring to have a climactic scene in which the heroes go over a major waterfall aboard a steamboat -- it doesn't give an exact figure, but it's referred to as hundreds of feet high -- and survive not only the plunge, but the subsequent wreck when the ship that went over the waterfall runs into the boats below the falls. Maybe I'm making some false assumptions about how likely it would be to survive going over Niagara-falls-but-taller in a steamboat, but it sure seems to me that this one scene devolves to extreme cartoon physics. I'm thinking that the ship going over the falls would be reduced to kindling and passengers aboard it would be turned into goo before they even had the chance to drown. It rankled.