A brother’s price

A brother’s price / Wen Spencer

A brother’s price is a novel that seems to be intended to defy genre categorization. Part fantasy, part western, and part romance, it comes from Wen Spencer, more frequently a writer of urban fantasy/paranormal romance with an sf twist.

Despite the fact that I’ve read about 10 urban fantasy novels in a row, this is the only book I’ve read by this author.

I usually try to avoid talking about other reviews when I write these, but I have totally failed this time.

Brief plot summary

Jerin is a young man being raised by his sisters. About to come of age in a world where men are treated as property due to their extreme scarcity, he is not exactly looking forward to an arranged marriage. After rescuing a mysterious woman, Jerin finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens to overthrow the government.

So how is it?

I have conflicted feelings about this book. It’s a unique premise, and Spencer does a phenomenal job of creating an interesting, believable setting.

I liked the way it played with expectations about gender roles – character are shocked at how emotionally resilient Jerin is, as men are considered weak and flighty. It’s an effective means at pointing out the arbitrary nature of gender roles (just read some of the reviews of this book on Amazon, where disgruntled readers complain about how there’s no way men would “allow” themselves to be treated this way no matter how little power they had).  Still, the role-reversal ended up, somehow, coming across as sexist at times. Jerin is the classic romance novel protagonist that everyone immediately falls in love with. Men are considered so important and valuable that all marriages are ploygynous. Jerin is always shocking everyone with his strength and capability. It was kind of hard not to come away with the message “yeah, the typical gender roles are reversed but men still hold all the power because that’s in their nature.” I suppose one could argue that it ends up being a satire of the romance genre, but if it is it’s so dry that it’s not really evident.

Other reviewers seem to think this book is excessively “man-bashing”, but I didn’t see that at all. As I said above, if anything, I felt the opposite. I think part of the issue is that the society she portrays is one where women have all of the institutional power and sexism against men is rampant, and people aren’t distinguishing between portraying sexism and being sexist. The whole romance subplot felt like a male entitlement fantasy. Thinking on it now, if the genders were reversed it would have been a totally normal ménage romance,* so I guess my issue may just be internalized sexism.

It was cute reading a book that played with the “standard” gender roles, but other than that the book felt strangely light. As a result, it doesn’t end up feeling particularly subversive, and if anything it felt too conservative. It’s an issue I have pretty often with romance novels, that they attempt to subvert patriarchal gender roles but end up supporting them instead.

 

*Since I was unable to find a convenient online definition to link, ménage is a subgenre of romance that feature relationships with more than two partners. “Polyamorous romance” might be a better name, but ménage is the currently “accepted” term. Most ménage books are erotic romance but there are some exceptions (like this one).

Recommendation

I haven’t recommended this book frequently. It’s too much of a romance novel for most of the people I recommend fantasy to, and the romance is a little too unusual for the romance novel readers I know. Fans of ménage romances looking for something more like a traditional romance novel and less like erotica, or polyamorous fans of fantasy and/or alternate history would be my target audience for recommendations. Unfortunately, I don’t know any fans of ménage romance who would be comfortable knowing that I know that they read the subgenre, so recommending it to people is more of a “notice that they’re reading  ménage, suggest this book” than it is anything else.

Of course, I rarely see ménage in library romance sections anyways.

Cross-recommendations:
Y : the last man / Brian K. Vaughan ; Pia Guerra
Ôoku : the inner chambers / Fumi Yoshinaga
Kushiel’s dart / Jacqueline Carey
And the following recommendations just popped into my head but I have no real justification for them
Grimspace / Ann Aguirre
Black wings / Christina Henry

 

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