Reading Update: Future Feminists of America
Suzy McKee Charnas The Conqueror's Daughter
So I finally finished the Holdfast Chronicles, with Charnas' fourth novel in the series, The Conqueror's Daughter. In this installment, Sorrel, conqueror Alldera's daughter from her rape by either Eykar Bek or Servan d'Layo, is all grown up and still dissatisfied with her perceived abandonment by her blood mother. (Alldera had, of course, in the previous novel, taken all the formerly enslaved free fems and returned to Holdfast, conquering the place and enslaving all the men.) Of course Sorrel's favorite sharemother, Sheel, has also taken off to see what life is like in Holdfast, and stayed.
Sheel much to the anger of the free fems, had sent a pregnant Newfree back to the Riding women of the plains, intending the unborn child to be raised on the plains like Sorrel was. Instead, the child turns out to be a boy, who is rejected by the women, and then rejected by his age cohort as well. Sorrel, feeling a kinship with him, takes over his care and becomes his mother and, fearing for his life as he grows older, takes him back to Holdfast looking for a better life for him. She's also motivated by a desire to see her two mothers again, to resolve her issues, and, of course, by the fact that she can't clone herself the way the Riding Women can.
The book is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Satisfying because Charnas continues to complicate the situation she developed in the first three books, breaking all the certainties the characters so confidently professed in earlier periods, and creating a rich sense of reality in this world. Unsatisfying because a novel -- a fiction -- can only take so much complexity, before it devolves into the chaos of actual reality. Novels aren't supposed to reflect real reality. Novels are a tool to introduce a kind of order to life so that we can understand it. Narrative is an ordering device. If reality is ultimately chaotic and meaningless, our desire and purpose in life as human beings is to wrest order and meaning from it. That's why we write -- and read -- novels.
So novels have to create an illusion of a certain amount of life's chaos and randomness, as well as an illusion of the patterns and flow of life, to convince us that we are looking at a reasonable facsimile of reality. If there's no reality in the fiction, then the fiction has nothing to say about reality.
But this "realism" can go too far. It can cause the novel to lose cohesion and, more importantly, to lose meaning, and then the purpose of the novel is lost. Charnas succumbs to the temptation to mirror the reality of a small community of a few hundred, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an important role and voice. She has, simply, too many important and active characters in the novel to keep track of them. The stream forward of the novel isn't strong enough; the novel's energy becomes too dispersed among too many points of view and too many active figures. I realize that this is how things actually work in real life; and Charnas has expressed her disdain for the simplifying action of storytelling very clearly in the deceitful and manipulative character of the storyteller Daya. But it doesn't work in a story; stories have to simplify to have any power. And you can see that principle at work in her previous three novels, all of which had many fewer active characters than The Conqueror's Daughter.
But she does give us a relatively satisfying -- if a bit unrealistic -- climax, and a very satisfying what-happened-to-them roundup of all the major characters. And she had the smarts -- or the talent, Delany says that writers underestimate their talent and overestimate their intelligence -- to make the clone-y Riding Women literally ride off to the West and into legend, in favor of a new, and more just, female/male society.
This is a huge lesson to me, in da nobble, because I have a lot of characters. I've already started cutting out the medium-sized characters, combining supporting characters so that I don't have too many of them, and folding functions performed by supporting characters back into the main characters. The supporting characters need to fill out the world of people, add richness, and perform certain actions that move the story along. But if there are too many of them, they start to detract from all of this. And I'm learning that it's important to lay distinctly different emphasis on main, secondary, and background characters: not to skimp on characterization for lesser characters, but simply to give them less prominence, and less to do, so the reader's head isn't too cluttered with figures to follow the most important movements.
So, all talk of satisfying/unsatisfying aside, this series, the writing and the project overall, is just several cuts above most of what I usually read in terms of writing, thought, intelligence, vision, and ambition. My gratitude goes to the author for attempting -- and mostly achieving -- something more and better, and actually great. And for teaching me more important lessons, both negative and positive.