The good: Imaginative, raw, blunt and eye opening.
The not-so-good: Took me a little while to understand the Vaik terms (there’s a glossary at the back – check it out early on).
Publisher: Echo Publishing
Setting: An unnamed city in an unnamed country
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
The Fortress sits on the outer realms of what I usually read, but I saw it mentioned in the Readings Monthly as a book to look out for. I’m not one to dismiss their recommendations lightly and it was happy coincidence that I received an email about this book too. How could I say no? I like my feminist dystopian literature (it’s about as sci-fi as I get) and The Fortress is one of the best in this sub-genre. Plus, I love the seventies inspired cover.
The story comes from the point of view of Jonathon, a high flying executive in a world not too different to what we know. I also felt that there is a dash of Mad Men office politics in his workplace. The young female interns in his offices are called ‘poodles’ and having a bit of ‘fun’ in the photocopy room is practically a rite of passage. But as you can guess, it doesn’t seem this way to the talented young women trying to climb the corporate ladder. After his wife Adalia discovers the level of sexual violence at Jonathon’s office, she leaves him but offers his one last chance for the sake of their unbound child. Her ultimatum is to spend a year at The Fortress, the home of the Vaik, for one year. Jonathon agrees to this but never did he dream that his year would be the most eye-opening of his life.
So who are the Vaik? To Jonathon and his cohabitants in the city, very little is known about these female warriors. Their motto is, ‘Work. History. Sex. Justice’, which has spread a few rumours amongst giggling teenage boys. They live on the edge of the city, taking in the occasional male for their needs as well as supplicants like Jonathon. The Vaik have no superpowers but a strong sense of history and justice. This is a group where the female is all powerful, in all aspects. For Jonathon, submission is not something he is used to. He can’t ask questions, can’t call a Vaik by her name unless expressly asked to or deny sex. His power is reduced to rubble inside The Fortress. It’s a sharp comparison between the ‘real’ world and that of the Vaik that gets the reader to question the power and sex imbalances in their own world.
As expected, Jonathon finds it difficult to give up his alpha male role and submit to the expectations of the Vaik. But it’s not just respect for women that Jonathon learns during his time – there is questioning of justice, atonement as well as the feeling of being utterly powerless. Does he truly learn the error of his ways? I’d like to hope so and there are signs towards the end of the book that Jonathon is remorseful. The lessons that he undergoes are brutal at times, but told in a way that hints rather than boldly spells it out. Sex is a strong part of the narrative, but it’s described in such a way that it’s not there to titillate but depict the power imbalance. The Fortress is a look at power and all its imbalances, then turns it on its head when it comes to the Vaik. These women are warriors; proud, strong and capable. They have honed their skills and customs over centuries to create an alpha female domain. To Jonathon, it’s novel and fascinating. To others, it’s some sort of utopia.
The Fortress is boldly written. It’s imaginative without getting bogged down in world building, which lets it focus on the themes of power and love in different forms. It’s well worth a read if you want something to jolt you out of your comfort zone.