Fantasy is a genre that has, historically, been dictated by white European history and ideas. When people ask you to think about fantasy settings you’ll probably imagine works by people like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, worlds where the majority of people are white, and the kings and heroes are almost always men. There are exceptions to this, there always have been, but so often men dominate fantasy; as such, it’s a real delight to see so many of these expectations and tropes turned on their heads for Scorpica, the first book in The Five Queendoms series. And straight away, from the title alone, it’s clear this is a book where women get the spotlight.
Scorpica begins its decades long narrative in the Five Queendoms, five nations that used to be one, but split generations ago. These five queendoms, The Bastion, Paxim, Sestia, Arca, and the titular Scorpica, still maintain connections between each other, and no one queendom can survive without the others. The story begins when the queens of these five nations come together in the Holy City in Sestia, where they will take part in a holy rite to bless the nations, and bring bountiful harvests. During the journey home from the ritual, Khara, the queen of Scorpica, is beset by bandits, and she and her guards stay at a small farm for the night. Here, Khara sleeps with the farm owner. Nine months later Khara gives birth to a daughter; one of the last girls to be born in the five queendoms.
Without warning, and with little fanfare, girls suddenly stop being born across the five queendoms, with only male children birthed instead. With men being second class citizens, unable to hold positions of political power, or even being allowed within the kingdom of Scorpica, this ‘Drought of Girls’ begins to pose serious problems for the five queendoms, and the uneasy peace they maintain. Over the next decade and a half, we follow several characters as they try to navigate this dangerous new world. Queens are overthrown, people are forced to go on the run, war is moving closer to becoming a reality, and something powerful from the ancient past of the five queendoms has awoken seeking vengeance.
The back of The Five Queendoms: Scorpica has a small quote on it calling it ‘a page-turning feminist Game of Thrones‘, and this isn’t too far from the truth. This isn’t a fantasy story about about a chosen one, or a group of brave heroes going on a quest; this is the story of nations, or the changes that they go through when something extraordinary begins to happen, and how people have to navigate this new world. And yes, the book would definitely be considered feminist too, as it is set in a matriarchy.
However, much of this new world does seem to simply be a gender swapped version of our own culture in a lot of ways. Women are in charge and men are subservient, but we never really go into any details about this. We don’t find out if this was always the way, we don’t get to find out why one gender came out on top, and we only get the mildest of teases that not everyone is happy with the gender inequality. These are all things that I wanted to know more about, and whilst the book was already quite long, I’d have enjoyed some extra time being given over to these topics, even if it meant the book being bigger in size.
Much like Martin’s work, The Five Queendoms: Scorpica is split across multiple viewpoints, as we follow a handful of important figures from across the five nations. These characters aren’t picked randomly, however, as they end up being some of the most important people alive at this time, even if at first they don’t appear to be anything more than an average person. The characters grow and evolve over the years that we follow them, and watching their journeys is definitely a highlight, as it’s interesting to see how they evolve over time. Because of the small jumps in time we get throughout the book there are times where I wanted to learn more about the gaps we didn’t get to see, especially when we got to follow one bandit group that were particularly great to spend time with, and who could have been the focus of a book themselves.
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The Five Queendoms: Scorpica also has some good queer representation, more than a lot of big name fantasy books tend to give us. There are sapphic characters, as you’d expect to find in a world where there’s an entire kingdom where men aren’t allowed, as well as characters that have more broad approaches to their sexuality, being either bisexual or pansexual depending on how you would quantify such things. Whilst it was great to see such open queer representation, one part of the queer community who didn’t get a look in, and who wold have been interesting to see, were trans people. This ties in with my desire to learn more about the inner workings of this world, and learn more about this matriarchy, but I was very interested to see how trans people would fit into this society, especially with such a difference in how genders are treated. Fingers crossed this will be something that Macallister will explore more in further books.
The Five Queendoms: Scorpica is the start of a new, exciting fantasy series that’s trying to do something different, that’s going against accepted trends and conventions. It works as its own stand-alone story, but also sets the stage for bigger things to come with the rest of the series. Whether you’re looking for narrative where women get the chance to lead, or simply searching for a fantasy epic that will keep you entertained, this is a book well worth picking up.
The Five Queendoms: Scorpica is out now from Titan Books.