“The High Couch of Silistra” by Janet Morris

I think that, like a lot of readers, I didn’t quite know what to make of this book. Is it a brilliant examination of sexuality and gender, or a highly disturbing portrayal of rape fantasies? The answer is probably: both. In any case, it will certainly make you think hard about sex, gender, and consent.

First things first: as a work of fantasy/science fantasy it is excellent. It melds fantasy and sci-fi tropes to create a galaxy full of alien races where space travel is normal, but most of the action takes place on a low-tech world where powers we would be more likely to think of as “magic,” such as mind-reading and foresight, are common. The world and its culture are described in all their exotic detail, but without the descriptions being tedious or forced. And the world IS is exotic and refreshingly different from other fantasy worlds I’ve encountered: the concept of chaldra (essentially duty), the Wells, the exotic foods and drugs that the characters consume–all of this comes together to create the impression of a culture that is complex yet coherent, unique yet recognizable, luxurious yet harsh. Furthermore, the decision to narrate the story from a single female character’s point of view, and to eschew grand battle scenes and so on in favor of intrigue, scheming, and maneuvering, all seen from close range, makes this a very different sort of a story than the bulk of fantasy and sci-fi out there.

And as for the main character’s point of view…this is where things become ambiguous (which is not a bad thing in fiction). Reproduction has become difficult for the human inhabitants of this world, and in order to give women the best chance of conceiving as possible, prostitution is common and socially acceptable. Many women work as Well-women (the Wells are essentially high-class brothels) or coin-girls (street hookers, basically) as a way to ensure access to as many sexual partners as possible, thus increasing their likelihood of bearing a child. Estri (our heroine), is the Well-Keepress of Astria, the best of the Wells. Society, especially that surrounding the Wells, is semi-matriarchal, and, as mentioned above, women actively seek out sexual partners. In many ways the treatment of sexuality and gender in this novel throws our own conceptions of it on its head.

And yet, and yet, these well-women are treated as chattel, with no choice as to who their sexual partners are–any man with money can buy their services, and they cannot refuse them. Estri herself suffers numerous episodes of rather appalling sexual abuse, some of which she brushes off as inconsequential, and some of which she almost enjoys, or at least, still has warm feelings for its perpetrators afterwards. As the novel progresses she even seeks out a partner who humiliates her and makes her feel inferior, in part because of those very qualities.

But, and this is important, it is always Estri who ends up as the survivor and the “winner,” if you will, of these encounters. Her rapists are killed, and her bullying and abusive partners change their attitude towards her or are discredited and disempowered, while she herself gains almost god-like powers as the book progresses. Despite its apparent preoccupation with sex, the story, and Estri herself, seem to say that ultimately sex is just not that important, and that those who put too much stock in it, or try to use it to gain power over another, are wasting their time and chasing after something they can never catch. Estri’s story is not so much the story of a woman who revels in sexual exploitation and degradation as the story of a woman who has the leave the world of her mother behind–literally, in her case–and, clawing and fighting, make her way through the dangers of the world of her father, learning how to deal with the inevitable danger and abuse that will fall upon a woman who makes that step, until she can assimilate both the power of the mother AND the father, and take her rightful place in the world. This is not a simple read, even if it is a riveting one, but it is certainly provocative, challenging, and unique.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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