Only women and girls are allowed in the Red Abbey, a haven from abuse and oppression. Thirteen-year-old novice Maresi arrived at the Abbey four years ago, during the hunger winter, and now lives a happy life under the protection of the Mother. Maresi spends her days reading in the Knowledge House, caring for the younger novices, and contentedly waiting for the moment when she will be called to serve one of the Houses of the Abbey.
This idyllic existence is threatened by the arrival of Jai, a girl whose dark past has followed her into the Abbey’s sacred spaces. In order to protect her new sister and her own way of life, Maresi must emerge from the safety of her books and her childish world and become one who acts.
This is a powerful novel. Think feminist Redwall, except the characters are people and the world is larger – and more dangerous. The Red Abbey is self-sufficient, and defends its people strongly, but the threat from the outside world is real. There are men, believe it or not, who do not believe that women should be educated, who believe that women are property to be abused with impunity. For the women and girls who flee from these men, and the world that they rule, the Red Abbey is a haven.
But my favourite part about the world of the Red Abbey is that the women who take refuge here do not hide away from the world forever. Though many stay to serve the Abbey and the Goddess, many also go back out into the world with the education, courage and resources that the Abbey provides, in order to teach and defend others. This is an insitution not only committed to defending those who make it to its isolated shores, but one which actively sends its agents out into the world to make a difference there, though they may risk their lives, and certainly risk their comfort and freedom.
I had only one reservation about Maresi, and that was the phrasing of the language. Hardly anyone ever uses a contraction – it’s, haven’t, won’t. It’s made clear nearish the beginning that this is intentional – I think one girl is reprimanded for not speaking ‘properly’ when she uses a contraction – but because the novel is narrated in first person, the whole thing has a tendency to feel stilted, as if she is reciting the story rather than actually feeling it. This might be a side-effect of the translation – the author is Finnish – but it did make it more difficult to get into.
The premise of this novel is fantastic. And the plot is full of real tension – when these men invade, no-one’s safety is assured. It seems impossible that anyone should escape their violence. But this is a novel about empowerment, not about threat. Maresi struggles with selfishness and pride. She’d rather be cloistered away in the treasure room with the books, or helping the younger novices, than to think about her future. But Jai’s arrival means that everything will change, and Maresi has to face all her fears, as do so many of the women here. This is a story about sisterhood, and banding together against tyranny. It’s a story about facing up to your deepest fears in order to defend the defenceless. It’s a story that puts power and choice firmly in the hands of the women who deserve to have them. I will absolutely be picking up the next book, Naondel, which came out earlier this year.
Women and girls of a bunch of different nationalities in this fantasy world, several of them are abuse survivors. No queer characters that I noticed. I think three characters are physically scarred, possibly more. The author is Finnish.