This book is okay. I started off liking it quite a bit, thought it was going to rank up there with the Sarantine Mosaic, but then my interest lagged in the middle, and I probably would have put it down and let it stay half-unfinished forever except for the 107 books initiative, that says finish it or quit it decisively, and I feel like a loser when I don't finish books. So.
It's another of Kay's historical fantasies, this time set in Britain at the cusp of centralization and Christianization, about the tribal skirmishes they have with each other and with the vikings (called Erlings, in this) that regularly plague their shores. It has the ensemble cast that Kay's books are famous for, giving you a panoramic view of the conflicts and how they affect people at all levels of society, it has the excellent prose and mythic resonance that make lit-crit people sit up and take notice when Kay writes a book, and it has a number of capable and influential female characters. But really, the same could be said for all of his books (except possibly Ysabel, which was mind-numbingly dull), and this one didn't stand out. The characters couldn't compare to The Sarantine Mosaic, and the plot couldn't compare to Tigana.
So let's talk about his women.
Guy Gavriel Kay writing women is something I've given my stamp of approval to before, though with increasing apprehension in recent years. It's not that his portrayal of women has started to suffer, but more that I've started to question whether I'm qualified to judge that. I'm not a woman, I don't identify with femininity, how should I know whether or not he's getting it right? It's like heterosexual Orson Scott Card praising the realism and authenticity of heterosexual Michael Bishop's portrayal of gay men. (ahaha… go to hell.)
Kay is undeniably ahead of the curve, given that he has multiple major female characters in every book, with their own interior lives that don't necessarily revolve around men, they have female friendships, their choices and actions have a major impact on events, and their paths to power aren't limited to "feminine wiles" or "action chick." (Not sure if there are any warrior women in Kay's books, come to think of it.)
In fact, he writes historical fiction set in eras that other writers have frequently used as their excuse for not including any/more women, on the assumption that women weren't doing anything interesting, or that what they did didn't matter. One of the things I've always appreciated is that Kay does his level best to disprove that. He keeps everything grounded in the historical context, but shows that there were ways for women to accomplish what they wanted, ways that don't involve transposing modern ideas of women's lib in to a medieval setting, or thinking that "strong" has to mean "acts like a man." I like that his women are allowed to be feminine without femininity being portrayed as a frivolity or a weakness, or innately less important than what the men are doing. That Heinlein's infamous "boy scouts with breasts" model isn't the only way to write women with agency.
That's all rather objective, but then we're left with the much more murky and subjective question of whether his female characters think and feel like women, or like a straight man's assumption of what women think and feel. And that, I am in no way qualified to decide.
Gender politics has been much on my mind recently, thanks to a wildly misogynistic John Updike book I read twenty pages of before quitting, a review of it that absolutely panned said book but was weirdly defensive of Updike personally (read it, no really!), and spending the greater part of two days reading sci-fi/fantasy book blogs with a feminist/queer bent. I wrote a separate post about Updike and Wallace, will put it up in a few days.
Also because I'm writing a story with a heterosexual friendship/romance at the center of it, and I am so not used to this game. If you're writing a story with two dudes (of roughly equivalent dudeliness) and Because of Reasons one of them needs to get kidnapped, it doesn't really matter which — they're both guys, your choice isn't a commentary on gender relations, you pick based on the demands of the plot. On the other hand, if you've got a man and a woman running around together and one of them has to get captured, you're either playing into stereotypes by making it the woman, or deliberately subverting them by making it the man. It's not something I've had to pay attention to for a long time, and I find myself accidentally sliding, all unexamined, into tropes I'd rather not perpetuate. (My stated goal is to keep Anderson "no less awesome than she is in the movie.")
What doesn't help is that Dredd and Anderson don't interact as equals for most of the movie, though it's nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the fact that this is literally her first day on the job and he has decades of experience on her. She proves that she can make the right calls if handed the lead, can get herself (and Dredd) out of messy situations, and that she'll stand up to Dredd if she actually disagrees with him, but by default she defers to his expertise. Makes for… less than revolutionary reading when they're hanging out and everything's going smoothly.