Saturday, May 28, 2022

‘Scorpica’ Book Review: Queens Rule in New Fantasy Epic

As fantasy epics go, Scorpica has a lot going for it: intriguing premise, interesting characters, and detailed imagery to boot. The first in a planned series of novels, G.R. Macallister’s latest dives into a world in which matriarchal queendoms reign supreme. It’s reminiscent of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (minus the misogyny), and fans of those books seeking a more diverse and empowering reading experience will find a lot to love in Scorpica.

Scorpica is set in a world where there are five major queendoms: Paxim, Bastion, Sestia, Arca, and Scorpica. Each one is known for different things (for example, the titular queendom is made up of warriors), and for the most part, there is peace between them. Men fulfill the role played by many women in traditional fantasy. They’re mostly there as eye candy and are only needed to produce heirs for the queens. However, the novel begins with the Drought of Girls, a time period in which only male presenting babies are born in the queendoms. This causes the matriarchies to become vulnerable and threatens to upset the peace in this world. Scorpica cycles through several different POVs, exploring the impact the Drought has on each queendom as the years pass.

The aspect of the book that is the most successful is the use of multiple points of view to tell the story. Each of the POV characters are deeply compelling and none are easy to figure out. Like Game of Thrones, readers should not assume that the POV characters are safe, which makes for exciting reading. A lot of the fun of reading Scorpica is trying to figure out how the different character threads eventually come together, and it helps keep the reader invested. Anyone looking for queer love stories will be glad to hear that there are several included, both with main characters and side characters. While not all end happily, the way they are naturally integrated into the plot with little fanfare is refreshing. It is also interesting to see how Macallister depicts the matriarchal societies. It’s unique to be able to read a fantasy novel centering women’s perspectives and experiences, even when they are brutal and flawed.

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However, there are questions left unanswered despite the detailed descriptions of the queendoms. Many are fundamental to Scorpica‘s premise, an it’s a bit baffling to see them brushed over. For example, aside from a priest who uses they/them pronouns and brief references to others who are “neither man nor woman,” there is no major transgender or non-binary representation in the book. This presents a problem: how do people who don’t fit into the gender binary fit into this world?

There are crucial rituals and customs in the book that depend on a biological definition of gender. These details accidentally create more questions than answers (like what happens if a baby with male genitalia grows up to identify as a trans woman or even non-binary, for example). While this could certainly be discussed in greater length in the planned sequels, it’s an oversight to not explore this early on considering how central gender and subverting gender expectations is to the plot. It is also particularly glaring because of the queer relationships that are depicted with a lot of nuance and care. For some, this may not be a plot thread that jumps out at them while reading, but for me, it became distracting.

Another weakness was the pacing. Scorpica clocks in at almost 500 pages, and there were times while reading that I consciously checked to see how much I had left. There’s so much world building and exposition to get through that it can come at the expense of character development. It’s clear from the beginning that Scorpica is the first book in a series, so it can at times feel like a prologue to a longer narrative. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the knowledge that the story will continue makes the ending stronger than it would be otherwise. But as a standalone story, Scorpica sometimes falters under the weight of trying to set up all the chess pieces on the board for an endgame that’s several books away.

Overall, Scorpica is an intriguing read for fantasy fans who are looking for strong female leads and queer representation. While it may fall short in some areas, it is still worth reading and sets up a world that can easily support an interesting series.

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Scorpica is available now wherever books are sold.

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