A review of CL Polk’s feminist fantasy

It’s clear that CL Polk has taken a page or two out of the feminist manifesto, and I am here for it. This novel weaves the idea of gender equality into the structure of a magical society, in a way that feels like watertight epic worldbuilding but also speaks to the modern feminist movement.

The story is set is Chasland, a mythical realm where magic is provided by spirits. These spirits are always hungry for power, however, and their deepest desire is to possess an unborn baby while it’s still in the womb. To protect against the spirits, all women with magical powers are forced to put on a special “warding collar” when they get married. The collar protects unborn babies, but it also cuts off a woman’s connection to the spirit world, meaning she can’t practice magic. Talk about heavy-handed symbolism.

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Clayborn feels like this division is unfair — why don’t male sorcerers make any sacrifices for the children? It’s a question that women have been asking about men’s involvement in childrearing since the start of modern feminism.

Beatrice is determined to throw off the literal yoke, never marrying and practicing magic instead. But her resolve is tested when she falls in love. The object of her affection is one of Chasland’s most eligible men: handsome, wealthy, able. He whisks her into a world of luxury and romance, courting her in a highly performative way that will appeal to anyone who read Jane Austen’s novels and thought, if only the romantic rituals were more rigidly defined. He’s a little too much the prince charming that fairy tales spun out of female dreams of yore. It’s entirely unclear why he likes Beatrice, but no matter! Stomach butterflies! World-erasing kisses! Smoldering glances!

But Polk doesn’t abandon her feminist premise. It falls to Beatrice to persuade her paramour — in a series of challenging, bold conversations — that even though she loves him, she can’t marry him if it means giving up her goals. Beatrice argues in favor of more equitable gendered labor within families, and her boyfriend begins to understand and appreciate not just her struggle, but the situation of women more broadly. In an entirely believable journey, he begins to question his notion of marriage as a structure that requires sacrifices only from women, while Beatrice starts to question whether marriage is always the cage she’s envisioned it as.

In keeping with the novel’s feminist themes, Beatrice is helped in her quest for independence by a series of soul sisters, bright and bold women who also despise and resist society’s demands.

The ending of the novel, while entirely inevitable, ultimately left me a little deflated, rushing as it did to wrap up the story’s complexities in a neat and somewhat heteronormative package. This novel’s vision of liberation seems to be that if men just do their share, equality is at hand. This is the equivalent of the paid family leave version of feminism: one that seems mainly concerned with the rights of a particular variety of well-off, straight, married, professional woman.

What about literally everyone else? The story seems only distantly interested in them, which — along with Beatrice’s passion for her work — means that at the end, this clever, intelligent story feels a little like ‘Lean In’, but with magic. While that message might resonate for a certain segment of the American population — and is still original, in its way — I would have personally preferred a conclusion that challenged our assumptions about relationships — and challenged our society — even more.

Thanks to NetGalley and Erewhon Books, who provided an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.