This fantasy novella is entertaining enough for its brief length, and shows some originality, but it fails to explore its most interesting ideas, and the character development and worldbuilding – while serviceable – are not particularly deep.
In a quasi-Asian world, a Protector rules over not-China with an iron fist. The first half of the book follows the Protector’s youngest children, twins Akeha and Mokoya, through their childhood, discovery of their magical powers and coming-of-age, while in the second half they appear as adults (the book covers 35 years) building their own lives and becoming involved in a rebellion against their mother’s rule.
As far as the plot goes, I found the second half more interesting than the first, and the book is a very quick read. With small pages and generous font and spacing, it goes by even quicker than the page count would have you believe, and the author does keep things moving – we get little more than a snapshot of the action at each phase of the twins’ lives. The thing that makes this book notable is its treatment of gender: this is a world where people don’t have one until they choose it, be that at age 3 or age 17. Which is a bombshell of an idea that is incredibly underexplored, treated as background and only barely mentioned in the lives of anyone other than the twins.
It’s a fascinating idea: what would gender mean in a world where everyone got to choose their own? Would gender be considered meaningless, merely a matter of plumbing? Would gender roles carry less weight because anyone could choose either, or more, because if you chose your gender you forfeited the right to complain? Perhaps there would be even less tolerance for crossing boundaries, because if you wanted to be a construction worker you should have chosen male? Would society be more equal, because people wouldn’t choose a gender they viewed as oppressed? Would governments try to incentivize people to choose one or the other based on their current needs? Would families pressure their kids to choose a gender that suited their needs better? Would horny teens choose the gender they figured would get them more sex, regardless of other factors?
And how would you choose, if you could freely choose either and hadn’t been handled a default? There’s so much to consider: what role you want to hold in society and your family; how you want your actions, strengths and flaws to be viewed; how you want your worth to be judged; which physical risks you are more willing to accept; what expectations for showing emotion fit your personality; what expectations for personal grooming suit you best; whether you want to be pregnant and give birth; what type of body you want; what role you want to play in sex; and so much more.
And guess what, none of this is actually considered in this book. The book doesn’t delve into how people choose their genders at all, beyond the idea of choosing what “feels right.” Akeha looks into a mirror, tries out one gender’s pronouns, feels they don’t fit, tries out the other’s, likes them better, and chooses that. This kid is 17, old enough to choose a college and potentially a career path in our world, yet puts about as much thought into this decision as the average person picking a restaurant for dinner.
Nor are gender roles in this society explored at all, though there are indications that they exist: Akeha – raised in a monastery – reflects on not really having known any men because monks aren’t “real men” in the eyes of society, and has a stereotype of women that involves simpering and makeup. Gender roles don’t seem to be particularly strict, or at least don’t follow our stereotypical defaults – most of the military officers we see are female, which is a bit confusing because if you could choose your gender and wanted to join the military, wouldn’t you go for the extra upper body strength? (Though the military seems to be more about magic than physical strength in this world, so perhaps not.) Or considered another way, how likely are the types of people who choose female to then decide to join the military in large numbers? Presumably testosterone is still a thing in this world.
The mechanics of all this aren’t explored either. The book indicates that due to magic, puberty doesn’t happen until people choose: but what plumbing do they have beforehand? What happens if someone never chooses? What if they later change their mind? If people have a “correct” gender – as is implied by having characters just choose what “feels right” – then one can choose wrong, for instance by choosing the same gender as one’s older siblings to fit in, or succumbing to family pressure, or choosing to please a love interest (homosexuality and people having love interests before choosing their gender both occur in this book).
On the positive side, the book did make me reflect on how large a role gender plays in how I view a character (and by extension, presumably real people too). Reading about Akeha and Mokoya in the first half of the book, before they choose, I felt distanced from the characters, largely I think because this key aspect of their identities was missing. Unfortunately, the language is also unavoidably clunky at times: “Akeha was used to being patient and staying very still, but irritated prickles flushed up their spine and raced across the skin of their neck. They pressed their teeth together.”
At any rate, this is a really quick read and a reasonably satisfying one on a plot level, so go for it if you want. But I would have appreciated it more if it had truly engaged with the ideas it introduces.