Book Reviews

Review: Scorpica by GR Macallister

Scorpica is fascinating, but flawed, epic fantasy with an almost entirely female cast – although I had fun overall, it didn’t quite work for me, but those looking for ruthless women will certainly have their choice of them!

Book: Scorpica by GR Macallister

Publication date: 22nd February 2022

Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury, death; death of parents and children; sale of babies; mind control magic; difficult childbirth (fairly graphic).

Scorpica reads fast. Though it’s fairly dense in terms of plot and has a large cast, I found it a really pacy read – I devoured more than half the book in one sitting, when I’d only been expecting to get 50 or so pages in. The story is large, too, spanning fifteen years, and it’s really interesting to watch the cast develop and, in many cases, grow from child to adult, through the course of the book. The viewpoint is constantly changing, and many of the characters are very introspective, which meant it was easy to slip into their heads at each chapter change. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy book before that had so few men in it – they simply aren’t really a consideration in the world, which is a refreshing and intriguing viewpoint.

However. There are some major flaws to this book that took me from loving the first 100 pages to being pretty fed up by the end. Firstly, I felt that it struggled to pick a lane in terms of style and target audience; the plot feels like it wants to be a bloody, brutal, almost grimdark story, but the actual narrative shies away from depicting more mature themes. I was promised something sexy, but the sex scenes are mostly glossed over or closed door, and the vast majority of them are totally non-romantic, with women choosing random men to impregnate them or people explicitly using one another for relief. It just wasn’t sexy at all; shippers, this is not the book for you because there’s next to no romantic relationships at all. Nor was it as gory or violent as the plot tried to make out (except in the early childbirth scenes). Even the Big Bad of the book seemed rather tame in her ambitions. It was almost like it was trying to hit dark adult content while maintaining a YA rating.

The worldbuilding has problems, ones that started off as niggling doubts in my mind and ended up as great big holes that really, really bothered me. The five queendoms are split by skills, with one kingdom of diplomats, one of warriors, one of record keepers, one of farmers; this is lovely in theory, but totally impractical for daily life. The Scorpicans, the Amazon-esque warrior women, eschew all men and sell their male babies to the other queendoms at birth, treating it as if the pregnancy never happened; practically, this makes little sense (How are those newborns surviving the journey? Do mothers just not have hormones in this world? I can’t believe an entire society of women is okay with this). Those same Scorpicans take annual trips to the other queendoms to get impregnated by random men, which seems a little more practical until you think about the fact that most of them have sons, brothers, uncles, and so on running around completely unknown in those kingdoms, and literally no one ever wonders if this might cause a problem someday. There are dozens of seemingly small issues like these that ended up making me feel like this was world that seriously needed more depth.

The biggest problem, though, is this book’s treatment of gender. In this day and age, I think there’s little excuse for a society that’s so heavily split by gender but makes no mention or examination of gender identity. What I mean by that is that it’s deeply weird to me to have a book that says ‘women are in power, men are second-class citizens’, and doesn’t allow for trans or non-binary experiences; I think there was one throwaway mention of someone’s past lovers being ‘women and men and people who were both or neither’, but never any clear depiction of how these people would fit into such a segregated world. There are some men who agitate to be more equal, but this is treated as a joke and again, a throwaway mention; there don’t appear to be any women who would prefer to take on a man’s role. Queer characters are few and far between, too, which struck me as very weird. The Scorpicans live in an entirely female society and it was only mentioned that one or two of them were in sapphic relationships, with no established relationships having any impact on the plot, while the majority of them seemed to be at least sexually attracted to men, if not romantically; outside of Scorpica, there was one main sapphic couple, who I will admit were the only couple who genuinely seemed to love each other. I was just left thinking I didn’t really see the point that was being made about society by making the changes that were made, because nothing was done with them; it seemed like shallow gender-flipping for the sake of it, with no thought about the deeper impact on the world.

The other reason I struggled with the second half of the book is more personal, and not an issue with the writing; on the contrary, I think it will be something that many people love. While on the one hand, as I said earlier, it’s refreshing to have an entirely female main cast (and a 90% female supporting cast) who are allowed to be as ruthless as they can imagine, I, as a reader who does not enjoy that kind of character, found the bleakness and constant reminders of that ruthlessness exactly as unpleasant as I would do in a more mixed cast. At the beginning of the book, I was wowed by the fierce but incredibly loving mothers depicted: great viewpoints to balance against the darker, more brutal women for a really textured experience. Unfortunately, every single woman who shows even a smidgen of love or compassion for another character is beaten bloody by the narrative, and usually killed in pointlessly cruel ways. This could have been a powerful book about motherhood and love (however twisted), and instead that’s cut off in favour of a whole lot of incredibly isolated women. Every character is morally dark grey, violent, cruel, and ultimately alone. I realised at one point that there wasn’t a single character left that I liked or wanted to see succeed. I appreciate that for some people reading this, this will be a great selling point of the book; for me personally, it’s not the kind of fantasy I enjoy at all. I want to see women in all their strengths, and that includes an ability to nurture as well as destroy.

Overall, Scorpica does some things well and some things less well, in my opinion. It’s a compelling read, for sure, in an interesting fantasy world; I think for me, it just dropped the ball on depth and concept, and veered into something that wasn’t quite my style. But if you’re looking for an abundance of morally grey, ruthless female characters in your fantasy, this will definitely satisfy! Three out of five cats.

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