It's not the vast epic I was imagining, although there are two more books in the series. It's more of a coming of age story, following one girl's fostering and apprenticeship over the course of a year, and her developing relationship with her warrior, a mysterious, mistrusted stranger that has been taken in by the Lady of the region. It is a charming, easy read and should appeal to both fantasy and historical fans, and the setting is as much - or more - of a character as the actual characters.
The first book in the trilogy, The Warrior's Path, is available for free on the Kindle, but the second and third aren't (with the obvious, dastardly plan of sucking people in and getting them to pay for the second and third books. Sadly, I think it's working on me).
The setting is a semi-fantastical, semi-historical Bronze Age, in what is an equivalent to Ireland or the middle of England. We don't get place names or a lot of geographical detail, only what our character knows - and being a country girl from a tiny village, she doesn't know much, and she only pays attention to what affects her - not out of close mindedness, more just a general ignorance and because her world is small. We do know that the society is matriarchal (there is a ruling Lady) although I'm unsure if there is an equivalent Lord. The title echoes the opening of all the stories, 'once when only women were warriors', harkening back to some mythical time long ago. The local people are a farming society in a relatively rich land, and well off enough to fear raids from their poorer neighbours, the Northern tribes. There is a somewhat complicated fostering system in which the gene pool is mixed up and the bonds of friendship are built. The women, when they reach a certain age, are sent to other communities, and there serve as warriors or wives (depending on their preference). Tamras chooses the path of the warrior, so we don't see much of the alternative option(s). Warriors are trained up under the aegis of the Lady, the local power and protector of the region, and serve for an unspecified time, presumably until their foster period is up, after which they get to choose their future career.
Friendships, semi-formal links between families allowing them to call in favours, are a major underlying structure of the society and one of the purposes of fostering is to specifically befriend people from as many different, powerful families as possible.
Nowadays, both men and women become warriors, taking on a specific role to protect the crops and lifestock of those more peaceful occupations against raiders from the cold and starving north. The sexes are segregated, but eat and fight and socialise together; as most of the story focused on Tamras' relationship with Maara and her experiences in the womens' place, we didn't see many men. Most of the main characters' social interactions are with women, so unless it is specified, one can assume that the other person is female. She remarks with surprise on how few women are in the raiding party from the North, implying a very different society among those people.
Tamras, our narrator, whose name I kept forgetting because we heard it so rarely, is a 17-18 year old girl, sheltered, kind, accepting and wise beyond her years (while simultaneously being naive and trusting). Whether she is truly wise, lucky, or guided by something mystical (which is hinted at), she always ends up making the right choice. Oh, and she's also apparently extremely beautiful, petite, blonde and blue eyed (typical of the locals, but they have some variety). This does tread more than slightly into Mary Sue territory! She always seems to know a little too much, and be a little too good and end up a little too right, and when you know she's going to be proven right, even if she technically wasn't, it gets a little boring. On the other hand, she is also shown as idealistic and overly trusting, so it will be interesting to see if this changes as she grows up in the sequels.
Maara is a mysterious and mistrusted outsider, shy and damaged and fierce, and quite lost in her new home. She threw herself on the Lady's mercy and was taken into service as a warrior. She isn't interested in a companion and ignores Tamras for as long as possible, before they become friends. She is honourable and much more philosophical than the other warriors (to the point of being stereotypical! Mysterious Wise Stranger teaches pure youngling alternative and better ways that are rejected or misunderstood by the hidebound mainstream community) She also ghostwalks (sleepwalks) and had a difficult childhood, with her village raided and herself stolen away as a child.
There is an interesting dichtomy in the relationship between Tamras and Maara; on the one hand, she regards Maara as a dear, trusted, but difficult, person and is very close to her. On the other, she is 'her warrior' who is to be obeyed and respected and followed. Both the person and the role get equal attention, and both seem to be equally valued. This reflects the way that the characters don't question the way their society is structured; warriors are worthy of respect, apprentices must obey their warrior, who is responsible for looking after them, and traditional ways of life, and songs, and rituals are to be continued.
Lady "the Lady" Merin is the local ruler, providing protection to the surrounding farmlands and the head of the household. She is portrayed as all wise, by Tamras, but is quick to use her politically against Maara in ways that Tamras feels unhappy about. She's a perfectly good leader, but not perfect, and she starts to take Tamras' advice as Tamras is proved right. She was a close friend of Tamras' mother, who also fostered in her household.
Sparrow is Tamras' best friend and first bedmate (and could easily become more). She was born a slave and rescued by the warrior, Eramet, who she apprentices with (and falls very much in love with), is a lot more wordly than Tamras (but then, who isn't?) and was sexually abused from a young age, giving us a glimpse into the darker side of their society. Slaves are not people.
Vintel is the local war leader of sorts; a fierce fighter, but not a pleasant person, she is respected more for her ability to lead a charge than for her personal wisdom. Over the course of the book she emerges as the main villain.
There are assorted other characters, some important and some not, but they come and go.
The plot is essentially Tamras growing up, but there are plenty of background happenings. She is made companion to Maara, rather than chosen as an apprentice, to her sorrow (companions are basically servants to their warriors, young women who have not - yet - been chosen as apprentices), but makes the best of it. After saving Maara's life, as much out of impotent fury as anything, they become better acquainted and Maara treats her as a person, rather than an annoyance and starts to quietly train her in fighting. But Maara disappears, leaving Tamras the only person certain she would return - she does, of course, bringing warning of a potentially devastating raid.
The story continues in similar fashion, with Maara starting to learn the ways of her new home, and Tamras growing up a bit and learning survival skills with Maara. Most of their troubles come from Maara's wishes to leave, the suspicion cast her way by the rest of the household and trouble stirred up by Vintel. Meanwhile, Tamras learns more about herself and the people around her, looks after Maara, and generally grows closer to her. As the narrative is entirely through Tamras, her experiences are central to the story, so we see a lot of her life, a fair bit of Maara and then not much of anyone else in particular.
There is a strong taboo against heterosexual sex in warriors, because pregnancy effectively ends a warrior's path (motherhood is valued and a career choice for many). Lesbian (or bisexual or 'we don't need labels') is the norm among the women, with liaisons of love and fun, need and comfort being everyday. It is extremely commonplace for companions and apprentices to be the lovers of their warriors, whether casually or seriously (their warrior becomes their life, and it is understandable that they would fall for their mentors. As there is no slut shaming and the community is reasonably small and bound by traditional rules of honour, sex isn't seen as shameful between consenting parties). It's possibly that some women don't join in, whether out of preference or chance, but as our protagonist is somewhat ignorant of sexual goings-on in the first place, partly out of naivety, partly out of keeping to herself with her warrior for so much of the book. At least one of the apprentices signalled definite interest in a young male warrior. Interestingly, during one of the festivals, that was a time for love, apart from a couple of specific characters and the gender specific dances, we never get any of the genders of all the young lovers scattered across the landscape pointed out to us.
Our innocent protagonist doesn't see much of this (and therefore neither do we), partly out of innocence, partly because she spends so much time with Maara, but she does end up in the arms of a very dear, and much more experienced, friend a couple of times, and is starting to approach the idea of a romance with her warrior by the end of the book. The sex scenes with her friend are generally tender and slightly fantastically, with metaphor glossing over the explicit details, and generally in keeping with the rest of the book. I did like the way that they weren't dumbed down (the rest of the book could have easily been a young adult one, so the sex scenes could have made or broken this feeling); that they didn't automatically lead to true love, and that it was acknowledged that if her first time had been with someone less experienced, it could have been horrible.
The relationship between her and Maara is quite distinctly adult/child, shifting to teacher-student, but they are also obviously destined soulmates, they both display sexual jealousy, and Tamras is just starting to grow up and consider Maara that way by the end. I can see them becoming True Lovers, or just growing up a bit more and moving apart - both have a lot of character growth in their future. I do like the way that the soulmate aspect, while obvious to anyone with half a brain except for our main character, is not automatically followed, just there in the background. Lurking.
Fantasy-wise, it just barely scrapes into the genre, due to the mystical and shamanistic aspects of the Goddess religion and ceremonies (which may or may not be drug induced hazes and religious belief), and the implied mystical force within Tamras inspiring her wisdom. But fantasy readers should enjoy it anyway, because it comes straight out of a time period that fantasy readers generally enjoy (swords and fighting and feudal systems).
The writing is very easy to read and flows along nicely; my only complaint was that it became a little choppy in a couple of places, with several short sentences in a row, but most of the book was fine. And I only saw one editing error, a missing preposition. The length was about right; as I mentioned, it wasn't the Great Fantasy Epic that I imagined, so it was shorter than I expected, but it certainly wasn't 'too short' (and of course, I read it pretty fast!)
You can download the first book in the series for FREE* on Amazon (or just buy the paper version). The second and third books cost money, though
*(from the looks of it, they're basically continuations of the first book, rather than the more traditionally separated books in a trilogy, so this is a good thing. It means you won't paying an enormous amount for what is essentially a long, single story).
The books in order:
- When Women Were Warriors Book I: The Warrior's Path
- When Women Were Warriors Book II: A Journey of the Heart
- When Women Were Warriors Book III: A Hero's Tale
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