Califia's Daughters, Leigh Richards
I'm not interested in dystopian fiction. I think there is enough present suffering and tragedy in the world without reading about what the next generations might have to endure. But I make an exception for Califia's Daughters, because the author Leigh Richards is really Laurie R. King, and I will read and re-read anything and everything she writes (even Touchstone, one of these days). When the LRK virtual book club over on Goodreads chose it for discussion this month, I decided it was time to read it again, though I have yet to join the discussions.
The story opens with a rush, with two wagons and outriders approaching an isolated valley somewhere south of San Francisco. The Valley's security forces are keeping the travellers under close surveillance. Meanwhile Judith, her grandmother Kirsten and her sister Dian, leaders of the community of 285 people, have sent the oldest and the youngest to safety in the nearby caves. Among those hidden away are the Valley's 27 males. We are not told precisely what has happened to this world, but in the time Before, there were armed uprisings, riots, violence aimed at those perceived as privileged, including attacks on universities and other centers of learning. In one such attack, the bombing of a research facility released deadly chemicals and biological agents into the air. One strain of chemical attack has infected human males, decimating the world's men while leaving women unaffected. There is currently one male to every ten or twelve females. Male infants and small children are especially vulnerable; many do not survive their first year.
When the wagons finally arrive at the entrance to the Valley, far from a threat they bring people seeking asylum. They have travelled a long way from their home in the Oregon Territories. A violent and ruthless ruler, Queen Bess, with her headquarters in Portland, is pushing the borders of her regime further and further south, threatening their village. They want to join forces with the Valley, behind the buffer of Meijing, once known as San Francisco and now under the benevolent if strict control of the Chinese community. Before the Valley community can accept these newcomers, though, they agree among themselves to send Dian north on a secret reconnaissance mission, to make sure the supplicants aren't a Trojan horse, that they aren't hiding anything that could threaten the Valley.
So Dian sets off on an epic journey that will take her to Meijing and then beyond its safe borders into the wilderness that Oregon [Oregon!] has become, and finally into the hellish city of Ashtown, which has traded freedom for security under a police-led regime. Both in the Valley and on the road, we see the different ways that women had adapted to this new world, what they are making of it, what their daily lives are like, and the terrible choices that some make. And it is a women's world. The few males that survive to adolescence are closely guarded, precious assets to be preserved at all cost. It is only a short step from there to treating men as possessions. Laurie King has said that she wrote Califia's Daughters in part out of her strong negative reaction to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (you can read her thoughts here).
This book works on so many levels for me. King builds a fascinating world, with characters that feel real and true, that I came to care about. The Valley itself is an appealing little self-contained world, like a futuristic Little Town on the Prairie. And then Dian leaves that safe world, on a dangerous journey that takes heart-breaking turns. Even though I had read this before, I was completely caught up in the story again, on the edge of my seat and reading straight through the evening.
Laurie King has also said that she sees this as part of a trilogy (and the middle book at that), but she hasn't yet found the time to write the other two books. As much as I love her Mary Russell books, and hope for another Kate Martinelli story, I also hope that she does find the time and space that she needs to return to the Valley. I want to know what happens next to these people, and I want to know for sure that Tomas came home safely.