Last year, I purchased Woman of the Woods out of a desire to move away from repetitive fantasy tales centered around young white men discovering they are “the chosen one”, or getting swept up in a prophecy they don’t bother to understand. (I think we can all agree that we’ve seen that pattern far too many times, so I was ready for a change.)
Woman of the Woods’ gorgeous cover art and exciting synopsis sold me immediately — a beautiful, badass black woman with two lionesses at her side cutting down the forces of evil and saving the world in the process? How quickly can I get this on my Kindle?
After reading it in full, however… I find that I have very mixed and conflicting feelings.
The first three quarters of the book lived up to my expectations admirably. There was a fair amount of early backstory and character head-jumping that I wasn’t expecting, but I hung tight through it in order to get to the protagonist, Sadatina, and her moment in the spotlight. Which isn’t to say the exposition and backstories weren’t uninteresting–I ended up being quite fascinated by the tale they told, actually–I simply wish that they hadn’t been so heavily front loaded on a book which advertises itself as being centered exclusively on Sadatina and her journey. To be honest, if I hadn’t been as excited to read about Sadatina as I was, Woman’s early info-dump might have caused me to set it aside.
Once Sadatina’s mother arrives on the scene, however, I am fully in my groove with this book. I stay up late to keep reading it. I want to know everything about the Shosa in particular; I am deeply excited and motivated by the concept of an all-female fighting force. When Sadatina must be orphaned in order to save her life, I am ready and eager to watch her grow up into the amazing woman I know she will be. I am also hoping to see more of Sadatina’s mother, who is deeply compelling in her own right–as is her trusted confidant and aide. (Great news: We do get to see both of them again, and it’s fantastic)
Sadatina’s early years unfold much as I expect them to, though I was disheartened by the focus on marrying her off once she turns 14. While I can understand the proposed cultural need for this, I found it incredibly creepy to watch this young girl being stuffed into revealing, uncomfortable clothes and literally paraded around town for men to gawk at. To make matters worse, Sadatina is coerced into doing this. It is forced on her without her consent, and she submits only because she feels she must be a “good daughter”. This disturbed me deeply. On a personal level, this brought back too many memories of being 14 and suddenly being terrified to attract the notice of men; I remember being uncomfortable and frightened by their hungry stares as I would do things that I had previously done in total safety. (Like walking through a restaurant, or looking at displays in a zoo) I also could not help but think of the many black feminists I have seen sharing their own stories about how hypersexualized young black girls are in our culture; perhaps that is not applicable here, but it is where my mind immediately went.
The sequences with the “river men” were equally troubling. No reason is given why these men are so dangerous, but as soon as they appear on the scene, it is clear that they are meant to embody the threat of rape and sexual assault. One of them takes a liking to Sadatina in the marketplace, because he sees her tight-fitting clothing as an invitation to harass her. And of course, a bit later on there is the inevitable scene where Sadatina is cornered by a group of river men on her way home, and must fight them in order to stay safe. I’ve talked on here before about how weary I am of seeing this sequence repeated in fantasy, no matter how “accurate” it may be. I suppose a small bonus is that Sadatina slaughters every single one of her attackers and aside from struggling against some poison their weapons were laced with, she escapes unharmed. Still. Did we really need this moment?
Because the sequence with Young Sadatina is so lengthy and in such detail, I expect the rest of the book to carry on in this fashion. Not so. Only another year passes (I think) before Sadatina is on her own, fighting against the ruthless creatures roaming the countryside that only Shosa can kill. Apparently Shosa are born and not made, a fact which the book doesn’t really make clear until later, because Sadatina happily goes about murdering them at will. She ends up protecting a small village and begins to make a life for herself.
And this is where I start to have some issues with the formatting of this book. For one thing, the author begins head-jumping into new characters very rapidly, whereas previously we had gotten used to Sadatina’s PoV being the only one. I found this frustrating, because even though I genuinely liked the characters the author was now focusing on, I wanted to see Sadatina. The book also begins time-hopping over huge amounts of what Sadatina is going through–for instance, after [traumatic event] happens and she begins roaming the woods on her own, I wanted to see what her day-to-day life was like during that time. The author skips it. When Sadatina travels to a New Place with Important Characters, I wanted to see that too. The author skips it.
Worst of all, when Sadatina makes an important decision regarding her future, the author skips everything and fast-forwards us to sometime which I think is almost a decade later? It’s unclear exactly how much time has passed, but a lot of characters have died and we aren’t shown how, why, or how this effects Sadatina. It’s incredibly jarring, and with every page it seems like there is more and more Telling and so much less Showing. Sadatina is no longer a character, exactly–she is an icon, a walking doll that Tells us what she’s feeling instead of just feeling it. Where did the woman I bonded with go?
On top of this, the book is becoming more and more about fight scenes. During Sadatina’s early years, there is a fair amount of variety: She hunts, she fights with her brother, she flirts, she dreams, she nurtures, and she explores. Once she is a grown woman, however, all of that flies out the window. She is just a weapon now; a sad, isolated woman who can’t seem to form any sort of emotional bonds. I found this both frustrating and unrealistic. A tightly-knit group of black women, devoted to fighting the forces of evil… and their leader has no friends? No one she is close to, or jokes with, or gets into passionate arguments with, or swears with, or drinks with, or hugs? Bullshit.
Similarly, I don’t believe for one second that every woman in the Shosa is heterosexual. The Shosa have a rule that no one in their ranks is allowed to bear children, and thus celibacy is encouraged. To me, that means the exclusion of queer women in this context makes absolutely zero sense. You do realize that most women hit their sexual peak in their early to mid 30’s, right? You cannot honestly expect me to believe that NO ONE in this whole group is fucking. To be honest, I would expect the Shosa to encourage this, because the more the ladies are touching other ladies, the less they’ll want to touch men. Sounds win-win to me. Then again, I found the focus on heterosexuality in this book frustrating all the way around. Even though I liked Sadatina’s first love interest a lot, (her second love interest makes no sense) I just…didn’t want her to like dudes, or some reason. Maybe this was a selfish desire to see myself reflected in her, but it just felt out of place for her to be hetero. *shrug*
By the final quarter of the book, the story is barely about Sadatina anymore. The author head-jumps constantly now, making up new characters as he goes along, none of which are very interesting. There also seems to be a very strange focus on men now; since the rest of the book has been almost exclusively about women, I was very confused by this sudden change in theme. (It probably doesn’t help that about 90% of the men in this book are as compelling as fenceposts.) To make matters worse, the book is almost exclusively focused on combat now. The final chapters of Woman are simply one fight scene after another. Whereas before I found the book hard to put down, now it is all I can do to drag myself through it. The fight scenes are stale and flat, and I found myself skipping a lot of them because I knew how they would end anyway. (I was always right.) Where did the beautiful book I fell in love with go?
The ending is…well, it happened, I guess. It was predictable and not at all as rewarding as it should have been. When an author puts their reader through emotional trauma, either by creating conflict or by killing off characters, I feel it is important to give the reader an emotional payoff at the end. Woman fails to do this utterly. Everything is a by-the-numbers prophecy fulfillment; one which happens so easily, I am left wondering why we didn’t just stick a sword in the Big Bad sooner.
Overall, I would still recommend Woman of the Woods. It is a genuinely compelling tale with a lot of good stuff in it…it just seems to get lost towards the end. (There is nothing quite as frustrating as loving a book and not having that love rewarded, I think.) Despite my conflicted feelings, I would read from this author again and I wholly support his desire to write fantasy where people of color are the norm, rather than the exception. We need many more stories like that, and I am grateful for his efforts. Next time, I hope he doesn’t rush himself as much. Woman of the Woods would have truly mesmerized me had it given me room to live in its world. I wanted so desperately to explore every corner of it, and to walk with Sadatina every step as she went on her journey. There was so much beauty and potential there, but because of the heavy exposition and strange formatting choices, so much of it is lost.
That said, perhaps my expectations were in the wrong place to begin with, and thus made it so I could never fully enjoy what this book offered me. Please give this book a try, and decide for yourself.